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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

The Communist fight to liberate China, 1945

Three members of the Chinese Communist forces -- including one who had lost an arm in battle -- learning to use captured Japanese machine guns, 1944

This fascinating look at the situation in China in May, 1945 was first published in the American magazine "Liberty". It was written by the American photojournalist (before the term was coined) Harrison Forman. Nazi Germany had already fallen and the Japanese fascists were in full retreat but still posed a formidable threat and occupied much of China.

Forman went behind the lines to report on and fight with the Chinese Communist forces in the war against the Japanese invaders both before and during World War II.

He was also stationed at various points with the official Chinese government Kuomintang forces and, despite their relentless efforts to portray the Communists in negative terms, saw the Red Army (as the People's Liberation Army was known at the time) as the real resistance to the invaders.

Here is a first hand account that includes conversations with revolutionary giants like Zhou Enlai and General Zhu Den and Forman's depictions of battles he participated in with the Chinese Communists from before the Cold War and the McCarthyite vilification of them.

Forman remained a friend of the new China after the Revolution in 1949. He died in 1978.

We have updated some of the name spellings and terms.

Mao and Zhu De, 1944

TEXT (Excerpted):

Our unrecognized Allies -- Mao and Zhu De, the leaders of China's Communists.

Who's Fighting Who in China?

Knowing that the Kuomintang authorities in Chungking and the Chinese Communists in Yenan

have been in an undeclared state of civil war for the past six years or more, Washington has been trying to get the two factions to resolve their differences and join their forces in the war against the common enemy, Japan.

To shoot this trouble, General Pat Hurley was sent to China some months ago as Roosevelt's personal representative. It wasn't long, however, before Hurley found the problem a tougher nut to crack than Washington and he had anticipated. The Kuomintang and the Communists were so far apart in the demands they made upon each other that there seemed to be no hope of ever finding a basis for mutual understanding. When U. S. ambassador, Clarence Gauss, who for some time had been trying to solve this and other worrisome problems in China, decided suddenly to resign, Pat Hurley was promptly appointed to his post.

In Chungking it was an open secret that this was done to give General Hurley the necessary face to remain in China, to continue his efforts to bring about political peace between the Kuomintang -- the political rulers of China -- and the challenging democratic elements which form the Chinese Communist Party...

With what urgency Washington regards this problem is indicated by the fact that since his appointment, as ambassador last November, General Hurley has given almost his exclusive attention to the Kuomintang-Communist feud. He has been flying back and forth between Chungking and Yenan, and on at least two occasions he has brought emissaries from Yenan to confer with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in Chungking. He's worked hard; but he's achieved absolutely nothing. And recently he returned to Washington to tell why.

Meanwhile Chungking charges the break-down in negotiations to the Communists' "insincerity." The Kuomintang says it offered, firstly, recognition of the Communist Party as a legal party; secondly, representation in the Executive Yuan and the National Military Council; thirdly, equal representation on a three-man board headed by an American officer to consider reorganization of and supplies for the Communist armies.

These seem like reasonable terms. The Communists point out, however, that the strings attached to these concessions completely nullify them. For example, representation in the Executive Yuan is meaningless, since the Yuan has no power to make financial decisions. A seat in the National Military Council would be a mere "paper concession," since the Council never meets and has no power whatsoever—the ultimate power in Chungking today rests exclusively in the hands of Chiang Kai-shek himself. As for equal representation on the proposed three-man board, this too is meaningless, for this board would be only advisory, with no authority whatsoever. More over, these so-called "concessions" were to be contingent upon the Communist Party first turning its armies over to the Kuomintang. The Communists say they are prepared at any time to turn their armies over to any fully democratic or coalition government. To turn them over to the self-appointed dictatorship of the Kuomintang would be certain suicide for the Communist Party.

Well, what do the Communists propose for the settlement of their differences with the Kuomintang? Here's what General Zhou Enlai, the official spokesman for the Communist Party, told me just before I left Yenan some months ago:

"We consider the only correct proposal for saving China from her present crisis is the establishment of a coalition government and a united High Command to include all parties and groups—not merely the Kuomintang and the Communists. Moreover, we continue to demand recognition for our 570,000 regular troops and the 2,000,000 People's Militia operating behind the enemy's lines in what the Japanese are pleased to call 'occupied China.'"

While ignoring altogether the proposals for a coalition government and a united High Command, the Kuomintang has offered to recognize a maximum of only 100,000 troops—provided, however, that the remaining 470,000 regulars and all the 2,000,000 People's Militia are disarmed and disbanded. The 100,000 regulars to be recognized, moreover, must be drained from the forward areas where they are now operating and concentrated at a designated point in the rear—"to await orders from the High Command in Chungking."

The Communists are scandalized by this counterproposal. To agree to this would mean to abandon large territories and 90,-000,000 defenseless people to the Japanese. "Who's fighting who in this war?" they ask with indignation.

That the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communists can't get together stems, therefore, directly from the high-and-mighty attitude taken by the Generalissimo and the Kuomintang powers-that-be in their dealings with the Communists. That attitude, unfortunately, is one of a superior dealing with an inferior.

The Communists resent this, and demand that they be treated on terms of full equality with the Kuomintang in any negotiations for the settlement of their differences. This demand they base upon their war record alone. Starting from scratch -- after the Japanese had swept the Kuomintang troops from north and central China -- the Communist-led troops moved in, and in seven years they have liberated nearly 90,000,000 Chinese from the Japanese yoke. "Match that," they say, "with the Kuomintang's record of having lost more than 200,000,000 to the Japanese."

And they have done it all without a single rifle, a single bullet, a single penny, or a single pound of food being given them by the Kuomintang-bossed High Command in Chungking.

How did they do it? With Japanese guns -- guns they've taken in battle from the Japanese and from Chinese troops who have turned traitor and are now fighting for the Japanese. How do I know? I've seen them. I've only just returned after spending five months with these Chinese Communists. I've campaigned with them against the Japanese; campaigned with them behind the enemy's lines, where they fight not as furtive guerrillas but as uniformed troops enjoying the full and close co-operation of the people.

They are today engaged in offensive operations against the enemy—an offensive from within territory the Japanese like to think they hold. I mean this literally.

The Japanese today don't hold even a fraction of the territory which war-map makers give them in north and central China. They occupy only the area actually within gun range of their strong points. These mostly follow the rail-roads and highways. The Communist-led armies -- the famed Red Army -- in their counteroffensives launched a little more than a year ago, have already destroyed more than 15,000 such strong points.

I spent several months with these Communist-led regulars in an area about 100 miles in diameter, ringed with Japanese strong points. We were systematically at-tacking and destroying them one by one. We'd attacked even the sizable walled city of Fenyang, a strategic Japanese base in north Shansi, and dared a full battalion to come out and fight while we burned down the railway station, destroyed the installations on the airfield, blew up the city's power plant and a large factory on the other side of the city wall. And when the Japanese still refused to come out from behind their protecting city walls (we had no artillery to blast our way in), we stormed a strong point about a mile from the city's main gate, killed all who resisted, and captured fifty prisoners and enough weapons to equip a full company of fresh recruits.

These are typical of the activities of the Red Army throughout north and central China today -- activities which in the past seven years have liberated nearly 90,000,000 people and 325,000 square miles from the Japanese. The Communists' Eighth Route and New Fourth armies together represent something less than one fifth of the total Chinese forces facing the Japanese. Yet these Red Army troops engage 49.5 per cent of all the Japanese forces in China today, as well as more than 90 per cent of nearly 800,000 puppet troops (about whom the world has heard comparatively little). In the seven years of war these Communist-led troops have fought more than 92,000 engagements, large and small. They have killed and wounded 1,100,000 Japanese and puppets. Fifty-five high-ranking Japanese officers have been killed, including a lieutenant general and several major generals. In the same period the Communists suffered more than 400,000 casualties.

This rather answers a sharp accusation made to me by General Lo Tze-kai, chief

of staff for Hu Tsung-nan, commanding a half million of the best Kuomintang-led troops in China, who are being used not against the Japanese but to form a strangling economic and military blockade against the Chinese Communists. Said General Lo, with venomous contempt, "Those Communist-led troops haven't fought a single battle with the Japanese in the past six years, and it is too much to hope they ever will!"

You heard so little, if anything, of this amazing military record of the Communists because of Chungking's iron censorship. We foreign correspondents, resident in Chungking, were never permitted to say a word about the Chinese Communists in any of our dispatches -- except, perhaps, to quote the Generalissimo and other high Chungking officials when they accused the Communists of "forcibly occupying national territory," of "assaulting national government troops," or of "obstructing the prosecution of the war." Moreover, for five years or more no foreign correspondent was permitted to go up into the Communist-controlled areas. Since my return, no other foreign correspondent has been allowed to go up there -- this by direct order from Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek himself.

Naively, Chungking justifies suppression of the story with the explanation that it is a "family affair" and therefore none of the world's business. But the demands for a hearing by 90,000,000 muzzled people cannot be passed off so simply. It's news -- and big news -- in any man's language. Moreover, the fact that these 90,000,000 are currently engaging half the Japanese in China -- battling them with weapons wrested from the enemy himself at the cost of blood and lives -- is something of extreme import to the Allies...

In China, Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang Party are already recognized by us as the legal government. We cannot, therefore, deal directly -- officially, at least -- with any faction within the country. We cannot, for example, send lend-lease aid directly to the Red Army for use against the Japanese. Whatever we send to China must be handed, without strings attached, to the recognized government for disposition as it sees fit. And the way things are at present, you can be pretty sure none of it will be given to the Red Army, no matter how much we may politely, but unofficially, insist upon it.

Well, just what is there to be done about the matter?

I had many talks with Zhu De, commander in chief of the Communist troops, on this problem. Zhu De had barely arrived in north China with his hungry, exhausted troops after completing one of the most incredible treks in history -- an 8,000-mile march under almost daily attack from Chiang Kai-shek's German-trained legions supported by American-made bombers -- when he ordered his men eastward to challenge the Japanese mechanized forces

which had begun their invasion from the north. It was David standing up to Goliath.

He met the enemy with what meager weapons he had at hand. In the early days of the war he inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Japanese, the first they had suffered up to that time. As the years went by he supplied his men with weapons taken from the enemy. And with these he has liberated 90,000,000 people.

"In the last stages of America's Revolutionary War," he pointed out, "Washington received invaluable help from the French, help that came through the British blockade. We, too, need outside help, for with-out it—without modern offensive weapons —we can carry on a war of attrition only. We cannot drive the Japanese from China."

It was plain, straight-from-the-shoulder talk. I asked him what weapons he needed. To my surprise, instead of talking unrealistically about airplanes, tanks, and artillery, he went right to the point:

"What we need most urgently is infantry arms -- good rifles, machine guns, and light field guns for mobile warfare. We need high explosives for blowing up Japanese blockhouses, bridges, and trains. You sent a whole flight of heavy bombers on a long flight to bomb the Japanese occupied Linsi coal mines in north China. You dropped tons of expensive explosives on the power plant and other installations; but you didn't knock them out. My troops operate within spitting distance of the Linsi mines. Give me just a handful of the explosives your bombers dropped and I'll guarantee to blow up every building there. And the same goes for almost every other important Japanese military objective in north and central China today."

It sounded like big talk. But I've seen enough of these troops in action to have complete faith in what he says he can do. There was, for example, one operation in which I personally participated. Lacking artillery, we were unable to make a frontal attack upon a powerful Japanese strong point perched atop a hill protected with rings of barbed wire and three twenty-foot ditches. Directly under fire one night, these Communist troops began to dig a tunnel. With the dawn we set off a charge of 1,000 pounds of ordinary homemade firecracker gunpowder, and then our Red Army regulars rushed in and finished off the survivors. A handful of America's new high explosive, "Composition C," planted by a single trooper sneaking up on the Japanese fortress, could have done the job much more effectively.

There remains, of course, the physical problem of just how we could supply Zhu De and his Red Army, if we were of a mind to do it. To truck or fly equipment across Kuomintang-controlled areas would be, for the present at least, diplomatically embarrassing. But the Communists control quite considerable lengths of coast line. The Japanese occupy only the major ports, such as Shanghai, Tientsin, and Tsingtao -- and Communist guerrillas operate boldly in the very suburbs of these cities. There are a thousand places along the coast from Shanghai northward where blockade runners could land supplies. These, Zhu De assured me, would be taken over and carried inland by the Communists.

Later, if we land on the north China coast, the Red Army veterans, together with the millions of people they've liberated from the Japanese, will help us defend these beachheads. As we pour in troops to engage the Japanese, the Communists and the people wholeheartedly will join with us. I wish I could say with equal assurance that we will get this same kind of enthusiastic co-operation from Kuomintang-controlled areas of China.

MAY 19, 1945

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