THE HEARTBREAKING PROBLEM for the United States in this war is the fact that we are forced to fight on every front simultaneously before we are really ready to fight on any one of them. We are forced to fight on all fronts partly for military reasons and partly for political ones: without passing judgment on the desirability of defending Australia at this moment, one may say that it was politically impossible not to aid her to a substantial extent; and the same is true of some other areas. The very people who demand that we should concentrate our forces in one or two sectors where we can be really strong are the first to complain when we meet reverses on some one of the subsidiary fronts that were left out of their calculations. The problem of deciding how to apportion our forces is tremendously difficult. The consequences of these decisions will reach forward for centuries in the life of all mankind. On the whole, the actions must be left to those military and political leaders who have all the facts at their disposal.
We say "on the whole," because there are some areas of decision where even laymen are entitled to have and to voice judgments. In certain cases the decisions that are made by those in authority are largely political in character and are based on little more information than is available to the rest of us. It looks very much as though one such decision had been made in regard to China.
The exact amounts of aid that have gone to China in recent months are a military secret; but it is not a military secret that they have been very small indeed. They have consisted mostly of airplanes or of supplies that can be transmitted by air. When we realize that the life of a fighting airplane is at best extremely short, and that it can be maintained even for that short time only by a constant flow of repair parts, fuel and other supplies, we can see the grim picture in a better perspective. The Chinese have recently been saying bluntly that unless they are aided on a far greater scale than at present, they cannot guarantee to hold out indefinitely. At first glance it might seem that with Japan embroiled with the United States, Great Britain, the Netherlands and other powers all over the western Pacific, her threat to China would be diminished; but this is not true. Until Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had much greater apprehension about the striking power of this list of enemies than they have had since. In the past few months they have expanded the territory under their control some ten or twelve times, almost always at the expense of these enemies. They now feel that they can turn against the Chinese a greater force than in the past, and there are indications that they are doing so.
There has been much speculation as to whether Japan would attack Russia, and if so, when? Many predictions have been made that such an attack would begin within a few weeks at most. Competent Chinese military authorities believe that such an attack is very unlikely until and unless China herself has been knocked out of the war. They point out that to attack Russia in Siberia with Chinese military strength still intact would dangerously expose the Japanese left flank. No competent Japanese general, in their opinion, would run such a risk.
The United States and Great Britain, naturally, are straining every nerve to try to help Russia against Hitler. They are sending large amounts to the Russians through Murmansk and by way of Iran. Both popular and military judgment supports this policy. But it can be argued that sending supplies to China helps Russia about as much as sending them to the western front. If the Japanese could subdue Chinese resistance and attack Russia in Siberia, it might prove a tremendous aid to Hitler. It is no secret that substantial Russian forces have been withdrawn from Siberia to the European front during the past year and that this is one reason why the Germans were turned back before Moscow. With a full-scale Japanese attack on Russia, it might be necessary to move some of these troops back again from the west to the east; and the cannot be spared from the western front, as events of the past ten days have shown. The Russians are much concerned, and in our opinion rightly, about the necessity of a second front in Europe. They ought to be just as much concerned to prevent a second front in Asia.
It seems clear that we have been shortsighted in deciding, as we evidently did decide, that no help, or almost no help, could be spared for China at the present time. For the United Nations to maintain a foothold on the Asiatic continent within striking distance of the Japanese homeland is of tremendous importance. In a military sense it might be better to decide to keep China and let Australia go than to keep Australia and let China go. But likely, no such either-or decision is necessary. A small part of the equipment sent to Australia moved now to China, or an equivalent amount from somewhere else, would do great damage to the Japanese thrust. The volunteer American fliers who have mad such a name for themselves in China as the AVG have now been incorporated into the United States Air Force. They have made a wonderful record in spite of the fact that many of our planes are inferior, plane for plane, to the Japanese ones. They would make the nucleus of a strong air arm; but they will be nothing more than the nucleus until they are reinforced on a great scale.
The closing of the Burma Road has enormously handicapped aid to China, and it is increasingly clear how badly the British blundered in their plans for the defense of that area. In this situation it is surely time to look again to the possibility of the route through the Arctic.
The Russians have evidently been reluctant to permit the use of that route for supplies to be sent to the Chinese. Apparently they have considered that it would be a provocation to Japan to attack them. But if this is the calculation, we now know that it is without any foundation. The Japanese will attack the Russians at the very moment they feel able, and not an instant sooner or later. Russia herself has been supplying help to the Chinese, without bringing on a Japanese declaration of war. The weather is bad across the top of the world, but this is not an insuperable obstacle. True, the Japanese have obtained footholds in the Aleutians, from which we have not yet been able to dislodge them; but here the argument cuts both ways. If the weather is too bad for us to find the Japanese and attack them, it is certainly bad enough for them to have difficulty in finding and stopping our air-borne freight from Alaska to Siberia. To admit defeat in this part of the world is not in accordance with the American character as we have known it in the past and as it has been here as one of the most important of our allies.
If Russian still hesitates, she might well adopt the device of “non-intervention” as practiced by Germany and Italy during the Spanish civil war. Let her profess all ignorance of the mysterious unidentified planes flying from Alaska to Siberia. Let her solemnly join in the search for them, as Italy solemnly joined in a search for her own submarines that were sinking in the Mediterranean Russian ships bound for Spain with supplies for the Loyalists.
This is a global war, but too many of us still stubbornly refuse to recognize that fact. We still think that Russia can be saved on one front while she is being attacked by a dangerous foe on another. Unless we learn to fight with the unanimity, ferocity and shrewdness that the enemy displays, we shall have bitter cause to regret it. It’s high time to stop considering China as the stepsister of the United Nations and recognize her as one of the most important of our allies.
This article originally ran in the July 20, 1942 issue of the magazine.