Category Archives: military

The Imperial Japanese Red Cross

From Faces Along the Way, by Ferdinand Micklautz (Miko Oriental Art and Publishing, 2010), pp. 187-189:

When I arrived in Tokyo in the fall of 1947, they gave me a billet over at the Dai-Ichi Hotel, in with field-grade officers, and an office at the Red Cross headquarters at Shiba Park. I dumped my bags at the billet and went straight over to the office, where I sat down and immediately got to work.

It was a real eye-opener for me to see how the Japan Red Cross was set up. It couldn’t have been more different from the Korean Red Cross. In Korea, the Red Cross was a fairly democratic organization (and we had taken pains to make sure of that); but in Japan, the Red Cross was a very stratified operation, beginning at an extremely high level.

The Japan Red Cross, from its inception in 1887, had been under the direct patronage of the Imperial family – as it still is. Traditionally, the Empress is honorary president of the Japan Red Cross, and other members of the Imperial family are honorary vice-presidents. This Imperial patronage, of course, gave the organization the ultimate in prestige, but that was only the start of it.

When I first began working with the Japan Red Cross, its president was Prince Tadatsugu Shimazu. He was from Kyushu, born into a powerful family that had ruled Satsuma prefecture for quite literally centuries and had many ties to the Imperial family through various marriages over the years. Another prominent patron of the Japan Red Cross was Prince Iemasa Tokugawa, whose father had been head of the Japan Red Cross before the war. Prince Tokugawa was a direct descendant of the Tokugawa shoguns who had ruled Japan from 1603 to 1868, and his wife was a Shimazu from Satsuma.

We didn’t call Iemasa Tokugawa “Prince,” because the postwar Constitution of Japan, written largely by General MacArthur’s people, had abolished titles of nobility for everyone except the immediate Imperial family. But with or without his title, Tokugawa had direct personal access to the Emperor, which was of tremendous use to us. When necessary, he also functioned as an unofficial diplomatic liaison between certain of the people at SCAP (that was General MacArthur’s title, “Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers,” which was extended to refer to the organization under him) and the Japan Red Cross, and this again was of great service.

I worked closely with Iemasa Tokugawa, and as a person I liked him very much. He wasn’t just a man born to wealth and position; he was a good man as well, highly educated and cosmopolitan, with a great deal of charm. We were fortunate to have him working with us.

There was a problem with all this lofty patronage, however. Though it underscored the importance of the Japan Red Cross, it also inhibited people from the lower ranks of Japanese society, who were as a rule the people most in need of help. It made them reluctant to avail themselves of the society’s services, no matter how badly they might need them. This was something that had to be overcome.

In addition, the Japan Red Cross’s high connections exacerbated one of the first and most serious problems I encountered when I began work in Japan. This was, that the Japan Red Cross was almost entirely government-controlled. It had no funds of its own to operate with; all funding for the Japan Red Cross came from the central government. Most of the councillors of the Japan Red Cross were ex-members of the Japanese Diet, and so were the board of directors.

The situation was the absolute antithesis of how a private service organization should operate. We wanted to put the Japan Red Cross back on its proper footing: that of a non-governmental agency, supported by public funds from voluntary donations.

Available by print-on-demand from Lulu.com. Newly available in Japanese translation.

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Varied Local Responses to the 1918 Flu

From Clara’s Journal and the Story of Two Pandemics, by Vickie Oddino (Dobson St., 2021), pp. 26-28, 123-125:

Halloween was cancelled in 1918 just as it was canceled in 2020. The celebration of Halloween differed from the Halloween we are familiar with today. “In the early 1900’s, towns began the practice of community Halloween celebrations, parades, and parties.” It wasn’t until the 1920s and 1930s that Halloween revelers caused mischief and pulled pranks, and trick-or-treating did not gain popularity until the 1940s and 1950s.

Clara expresses the same frustration and confusion that people, especially 18-year-olds, currently have as announcement follows announcement of cancellations, more often in some states and cities than in others. And in 1918, cancellations and restrictions varied across the country as well.

One example from 1918 comes from Philadelphia and St. Louis, cities that famously handled the outbreak completely differently. Wilmer Krusen, Philadephia’s public health director, assured the city that the flu was isolated to the military and that it would not spread to civilians. Despite reports that contradicted his views of the disease’s spread, Krusen insisted on continuing with plans to host the Liberty Loan parade, which he predicted would raise millions of dollars in war bonds. And indeed, although city officials anticipated 10,000 spectators, the popular parade drew over 200,000.

Three days after the 1918 Philadelphia parade, all the hospitals in Philadelphia were at capacity. And within a week of the parade, 2,600 people had died. In the meantime, St. Louis immediately closed schools and cancelled other public gatherings. As a result, over the course of the pandemic, Philadelphia had more than twice as many deaths per 100,000 people than St. Louis.

According to the South Dakota State Historical Society,

“The Home Guard (the equivalent of today’s National Guard) roamed through the streets of Rapid City, fining and arresting people who were not abiding by the cities [sic] newly created “sanitation laws.” City residents were fined or arrested for “expectorating” (spitting) on the sidewalks of Rapid City. As the local paper noted, “The Guard will be out in full force today to see there is no breaking of the quarantine regulations.” On October 27, 1918, one Rapid City man was charged with “flagrant violation of the anti-spitting ordinance.” Even a Rapid City police officer was arrested by the Home Guard for violating the anti-spitting ordinance and paid the customary fine of $6.”

In 1919, the University of Minnesota shut its doors, the University of Montana held classes outdoors, the University of North Carolina went under quarantine, and Smith College closed down completely. At Stanford University, everyone, including professors, were required to wear masks of risk being fired.

Some cities, mostly in the West, also required masks in public….

According to the Sacramento Bee,

“In San Francisco, 100 people were arrested in October [1918] – reported in the news as “mask slackers” – and nine of them were sent to jail. In Stockton, California, one policeman apparently found his own father to be a mask slacker, and he arrested him.”

Officials did their best to turn masks into fashion statements. “In October 1918, the Seattle Daily Times carried the headline ‘Influenza Veils Set New Fashion: Seattle Women Wearing Fine Mesh With Chiffon Border to Ward Off Malady.’”

Early in 1919, some people had had enough, so a woman in San Francisco “organized an Anti-Mask League whose purpose was to ‘oppose by lawful means the compulsory wearing of masks.’”

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U.S. vs. Japanese Fighter Planes, 1942

From Japan Runs Wild, 1942–1943, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 100-101:

American aviator Jim Morehead flew P-40s over Java and Darwin and was taken aback by the ability of the Japanese enemy, completely at odds with what he had been led to expect: “Before the war officers assured us that American pilots were flying some of the best planes in the world. Everyone underestimated the Japanese and the Zero was a real shock,” he told an interviewer later. “I remain bitter that our government, backed by the most advanced economy in the world, would send their men to war in aircraft that were inferior to that of the enemy.” Australians who had arrived from Europe tried “Battle of Britain” tactics against Japanese pilots and often paid with their lives when discovering the great maneuverability of the enemy’s aircraft. “We told them the basics,” an American pilot said later. “Don’t think that because you could turn inside a German fighter that you could do the same with a Zero.”

This changed with the battle of Midway. Although it was a myth that the elite of Japanese Naval aviation was wiped out in the fateful encounter in June, enough pilots were killed to make it impossible for Japan to ever again recover its greatness in the skies. At the same time, US pilots proved to be quick learners and began showing awe-inspiring ability. A case in point were the “Cactus” pilots on Guadalcanal dubbed after the island’s codename. “It is necessary to remember that the Japanese Zero at this stage of the war was regarded with some of the awe in which the atomic bomb came to be held later,” according to an early account. “The Cactus fighters made a great contribution to the war by exploding the theory that the Zero was invincible.”

US technology also showed its enormous potential. The twin-engine P-38 was not just a piece of state-of-the-art engineering but also entailed a peculiar psychological boost. Since it had two propellers, the pilot could afford to have one engine shot out or otherwise malfunction, and still be able to make it home over hundreds of miles of ocean. This was reassuring for pilots who otherwise would face the prospect of making a forced landing, in which case Japanese patrol boats might not even be the biggest horror. “You look down from the cockpit and you can see schools of sharks swimming around,” said George C. Kenney, commander of MacArthur’s air forces. “They never look healthy to a man flying over them.” All in all, it added up to one thing: towards the end of 1942, the Allies were close to achieving air superiority in key theaters of war in the Pacific. On December 3, a Japanese soldier on Papua wrote jealously in his diary: “They fly above our position as if they own the sky.” Even before the first anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, when Japanese planes had roamed at will over the vast expanses of Asia and the Pacific, the Allies were winning the war in the air.

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U.K. vs. U.S. Views of Alliance with China, 1941

From Japan Runs Wild, 1942–1943, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 33-35:

China’s willingness to hurl millions of its own people into a long, bloody war was a major asset to its new American and British allies. “The stubborn resistance of the Chinese,” a US State Department memorandum declared, “destroys Japan’s claim that she comes to emancipate either China or Asia!”19 At the same time, a track record of having stood up to Japan for more than four years prior to Pearl Harbor gave China new confidence. This was in evidence shortly after the outbreak of the Pacific war when Archibald Wavell, the commander-in-chief of British forces in India, visited Chiang Kai-shek in Chongqing, carrying only news of endless defeats and setbacks. “You and your people have no idea how to fight the Japanese,” Chiang told his British guest in language that was only slightly mitigated by the nervous translator. “Resisting the Japanese is not like suppressing colonial rebellions… For this kind of job, you British are incompetent, and you should learn from the Chinese how to fight against the Japanese.”

China was a prominent issue dividing the United States and Britain from the outset. Churchill and Roosevelt did not see eye to eye. On his trip across the Atlantic for the Arcadia Conference, the first summit on British-American strategy after the US entry into the war, the British prime minister later said, “If I can epitomize in one word the lesson I learned in the United States, it was ‘China’.” Britain’s lukewarm attitude towards the Chinese friend was a mirror image of its denigration of the Japanese foe, partly borne out of more than a century as a colonial power in Asia, which had led to an ingrained feeling of cultural and even racial superiority. In conversations with Roosevelt in Washington DC, Churchill stretched as far as he thought he could on the issue, which was not much: “I said I would of course always be helpful and polite to the Chinese, whom I admired and liked as a race and pitied for their endless misgovernment, but that he must not expect me to adopt what I felt was a wholly unreal standard of values.”

The two leaders and their governments had entirely different views on the value of China as an alliance partner. United States envisaged a major role for China in the war in East Asia and expected it to become one of the predominant Allies setting the tone for the entire effort to defeat Japan. Britain, on the other hand, expected little from China and often treated it as something in between an annoyance and a strategic competitor. When China offered to send two armies to the British colony of Burma, which had up to then largely escaped Japanese aggression, Britain initially turned down the offer. This was based on the belief that Japan was too tied up elsewhere to attempt a major offensive onto Burmese territory. In this perspective, a Chinese presence on British-controlled soil was a price not worth paying considering expectation of only meager payoff.

In spite of the British reservations, Sino-American cooperation was beginning to materialize in a small way, even as Roosevelt, Churchill, and their aides were talking in the US capital. For Claire Chennault, the former Army aviator who had been hired to head a group of American volunteer pilots in China, the time had now come to put his men into action. One morning a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, staff at his airbase near the city of Kunming in southwest China received reports from a network of Chinese observers on the ground that ten unescorted Japanese bombers were heading in his direction. He ordered one squadron of P-40 planes in the air to intercept the approaching aircraft. “This was the decisive moment I had been awaiting for more than four years,” Chennault wrote in his memoirs. “American pilots in American fighting planes aided by Chinese ground warning net about to tackle a formation of the Imperial Japanese Air Force, which was then sweeping the Pacific skies victorious everywhere.”

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Hirohito’s War Information Sources

From Japan Runs Wild, 1942–1943, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 81-82, 108:

At home in Japan, the defeat at Midway only sank in slowly, partly because of reluctance to lose face, and partly because of continued problems with communication and cooperation among the different services. “I did not hear of the Midway defeat till more than a month after it occurred,” Prime Minister Tōjō said after the war. Hirohito, by contrast, was informed immediately about the disastrous defeat, including the loss of the four aircraft carriers. With access to more unbiased information than perhaps any other person in his empire, he was the only one to receive reports from the chiefs of staff of both the Army and the Navy, whereas the services were usually careful not to volunteer information to each other. This placed Hirohito in his own private tragedy: fully aware of how desperate the situation was becoming, but unable to do much about it.

On December 12, Emperor Hirohito went to the Grand Shrine at Ise, a city west of Tokyo. It was one of the holiest places for the official Shintō religion, and a suitable venue for the ruler to consider the position of the nation that saw him not just as a leader but a god, and had already sustained terrible sacrifices in his name. Performing rites going back many generations, he was now staring down into an abyss darker than any of his ancestors ever had to contemplate. The night before, he had spoken with complete candor to his military aide-de-camp, Colonel Ogata Kenichi. The emperor had recounted the numerous battles that had consumed Japan for more than a decade, beginning in Manchuria, then in the rest of China and now all of the Pacific. “It is easy to start a war but hard to end it,” the dejected ruler had said.

The fall months, filled with interminable and increasingly hopeless fighting in the deep south far from Japan’s own shores, had seen Hirohito subtly change his mind about the war. The setback on the Kokoda Trail had come as a particular shock. “From the time our line along the Stanley Mountain Range in New Guinea was penetrated, I was anxious for peace, but we had a treaty with Germany against concluding a separate peace, and we could not violate an international commitment. This was the dilemma that tormented me,” Hirohito told close collaborators after the war. Even small victories could not lighten his mood. After the Santa Cruz battle, in which his warriors had sunk the Hornet, he had congratulated them in a statement, which, however, also carried a cautionary note: “We believe the war situation is critical. Officers and men, exert yourselves to even greater efforts.”

The start of the year 1942 had seen the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy in triumphant mode. As the months passed, it had begun to take on the form of an annus horribilis. However, as his view of the war turned bleaker, Hirohito decided to up the ante. Gamblers come in two categories. There are those who decide to cut their losses when their fortunes fail them, and then there are others who raise the stakes. The Japanese ruler belonged to the latter type. On the last day of the year he met with his senior commanders and agreed that the Guadalcanal operation must be called off. Instead, greater emphasis would be placed on New Guinea. Hirohito was hoping for, if not actively seeking, a big all-or-nothing battle with the Americans that could shock them, and their casualty-averse public, into agreeing to a negotiated end of the war. The year 1943 would put that notion to the test.

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Retreat from Burma, 1942

From Japan Runs Wild, 1942–1943, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 69-70:

The retreat out of Burma into India was a race against time, as it had to be completed before the onset of the monsoon. The troops made it, just. The last stage of the British withdrawal was bogged down by torrential rains, which began in May. Pearl “Prue” Brewis, a British nurse, was on a train that managed to travel 65 miles in six days, since movement could only take place at night. On the sixth day, while the carriage was sitting idly on the tracks, a senior railway official entered and offered a ride up north on his train. It was crowded, but fast. “Standing room only, you know,” Brewis said about the 100-mile ride north. “Actually, we got the last plane to leave Burma because the next day the aerodrome was bombed.”

More than a million Indians lived in Burma prior to the war, but most still considered India their home. When the Japanese launched their invasion, there was a mass exodus of Indians, and soon most major Burmese cities were virtually emptied of them. The senior medical officer, Brigadier Short, described the Indians who arrived at the town of Ledo in easternmost India in the summer of 1942: “Complete exhaustion, physical and mental, with a disease superimposed, is the usual picture… all social sense is lost… they suffer from bad nightmares and their delirium is a babble of rivers and crossings, of mud and corpses… Emaciation and loss of weight are universal.” Slim watched how an Indian woman died from smallpox, leaving behind her small son. He and his staff bribed an Indian family to take the boy with them. “I hope he got through all right and did not give smallpox to his new family,” Slim wrote in his memoirs.

In the manner of Dunkirk, the defeat in Burma was in a way turned into a victory by the British. “The Army in Burma,” the official British history says, “without once losing its cohesion had retreated nearly one thousand miles in some three and a half months—the longest retreat ever carried out by a British Army.” The American assessment of the British record was less kind: “Though there were cases of individual heroism and desperate fights by small isolated forces, the main body of the British made little or no efforts to stand and give battle,” an official US military report on the Burma campaign said. “The piecemeal defense was a piece of stupidity which resulted in tens of thousands of casualties to the troops, the complete destruction of every town and city in Burma, and the loss to both the Chinese and the British of a vast amount of irreplaceable installations and equipment.”

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British vs. Japanese Tactics in Malaya, 1941

From Japan Runs Wild, 1942–1943, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 22-24, 40:

The first troops which the Japanese encountered when disembarking on the Malay coastline were Indians, and Indian units remained their main opponent throughout the campaign. Britain used one part of its empire to defend another. Out of 31 Commonwealth battalions deployed on the Malay Peninsula, 18 were Indian, six were British, six were Australian, and one was Malay. A large number of Indian troops had originally been earmarked for the Middle East and had undergone training in Australia, specializing in tactics suitable for desert warfare. Now they were in the jungle. “One could argue that the Commonwealth troops in Malaya failed to unlearn the lessons of desert warfare in tropical conditions,” Indian military historian Kaushik Roy writes, “and failed to adopt the required tactical techniques for fighting effectively in the different ecological landscape.”

The poor preparation of the Commonwealth troops made the preparations carried out by the Japanese seem all the more impressive. As a matter of fact, the Japanese campaign in Malaya was a rush job, planned in less than a year by a small group of dedicated officers operating on a minimal budget, seeking information from whoever in the Japanese Empire might be a good source. An old sea captain who had spent many years plying routes in the areas Japan planned to invade provided details about weather patterns and coastal conditions. The Ishihara Mining Company had useful information about the geography of the Malay Peninsula. Professors at Taiwan University filled the group in on hygiene in the tropics and measures against malaria.

The Japanese, whose main experience with war had been on the Mongolian steppe and the rice fields of China, were no more used to jungle warfare than their Western counterparts, but they went into battle better prepared because of the questions that the planners asked, and found answers to. “What alterations had to be made in the organization of troops and the type of weapons and equipment used on the Siberian and Manchurian battlefields at twenty degrees below zero to meet requirements for fighting in the dense jungles of the tropics?” asked the planners, led by the capable but brutal officer Tsuji Masanobu. “How should tactics and strategy used against the Soviet Union be revised for action against British and American armies, and what comparisons could be made between the tactics, equipment and organization of Soviet, British, and American troops?”

The preparations paid off. The Japanese soldiers landing in Malaya were equipped for quick, decisive movements through terrain where modern roads were only sparse. They had light tanks, light trucks, and first and foremost bicycles. An Australian staff officer, C. B. Dawkins, concluded that the Japanese had, in fact, understood what the Westerners had not: “Jungle, forest and rubber areas are par excellence infantry country—every move is screened from air and ground observations, the value of fire of weapons of all natures is very limited, and troops on the offensive can close to within assaulting distance unmolested.”

By Christmas, Lieutenant General Arthur Ernest Percival, the overall commander of Commonwealth forces in Malaya, had to revise many previously held views of the Japanese foes, as he explained later: “It was now clear that we were faced by an enemy who had made a special study of bush warfare on a grand scale and whose troops had been specially trained in those tactics. He relied in the main on outflanking movements and infiltration by small parties into and behind our lines… his infantry had displayed an ability to cross obstacles—rivers, swamps, jungles, etc.—more rapidly than had previously been thought possible.”

Faced with a terrifying foe, the Commonwealth defenders went from underestimating the Japanese foes’ quality to overestimating their quantity. “A British soldier is equal to ten Japanese, but unfortunately there are eleven Japanese,” an injured Tommy told American correspondent Cecil Brown. The British Army in Malaya could not believe it was being beaten by the Japanese, and its members had to conjure up superior numbers to explain what happened to them. In fact, there were about twice as many British-led soldiers as there were Japanese. In Malaya as in all other major land campaigns that the Japanese waged early in the war, they invariably fielded numerically inferior troops, which nevertheless excelled in all other parameters.

National differences came out more clearly in the harsh jungle. The stiff pecking orders of the British military were maintained even in the primitive conditions, whereas the flat hierarchies of the Australians appeared to some observers more suited for the new strange environment. “The Australian Army is undoubtedly the world’s most democratic, and the troops in Malaya prove it,” wrote American correspondent F. Tillman Durdin, reporting how the salute resembled a “Hi, there” gesture. “An Australian officer can command his men only if he proves himself as good a man as any of his unit.”

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Few Troops in the Philippines, 1941

From Japan Runs Wild, 1942–1943, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle p. 15:

The Japanese pilots flying over the Philippines in the days after Pearl Harbor were experiencing an entirely new form of war. Many of them were veterans from the long conflict in China, where they had been facing Chinese and sometimes Soviet aviators in Russian-built planes. Now, in the midst of the crucial battle for control of the Philippines skies as a prelude to the planned invasion of the islands, they were up against Americans in US-built aircraft. They found to their relief that their own Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighter was a more than adequate match for the American P-40, as the Japanese plane outshone its US counterpart in everything except diving acceleration. “The confidence of our fighter pilots continued to grow, nurtured by the absence of effective opposition,” wrote Shimada Kōichi, on the staff of the Eleventh Air Fleet, which had the responsibility for air operations over the Philippines.

The Philippines, under the overall command of General Douglas MacArthur, was not Wake. And yet, despite its much larger size and more awe-inspiring defensive potential, it was essentially just another piece of US-held territory that the military planners in Washington had to effectively abandon beforehand. In the tense years prior to the outbreak of war in the Pacific, the US government, faced with the likelihood of being sucked into the ongoing war in Europe, had been forced to allocate desperately scarce military resources elsewhere. “Adequate reinforcements for the Philippines at this time,” according to General George C. Marshall, the US Army’s chief of staff, “would have left the United States in a position of great peril should there be a break in the defense of Great Britain.” What was not clear at the time was the fact that the Japanese were similarly constrained, and that the Japanese high command intended to take the Philippines with the smallest feasible number of troops.

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Parliament Debates the Opium War

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 405-407:

The motion finally came to a vote at four o’clock in the morning of April 10 [1840] after three grueling nights of debate. Five hundred and thirty-three weary parliamentarians filed out into the division lobbies, and when their votes were tallied, it turned out that Palmerston had prevailed by the slimmest of margins. A majority of just nine votes—271 to 262—allowed Melbourne’s government to escape censure and effectively gave Palmerston’s war in China a sanction to proceed as planned. The outcome was so close that if the very cabinet ministers whose conduct was on trial had not been permitted to vote in their own favor, the motion to condemn them would have passed. For that reason it had been said that if the majority were fewer than ten votes, Palmerston and the other ministers would still agree to resign. It was, but they did not.

It is impossible to measure exactly how much influence George Staunton had on that outcome, but at least seven or eight of the Whig lawmakers had openly expressed their willingness to defy their party and oppose the China war if the debate should convince them it was morally unjust. If Staunton had declined to support Palmerston, or even had spoken against him, it would have taken just five of those waverers to change their votes and the entire outcome would have been reversed. James Graham’s resolution of censure would have passed, Melbourne’s government would have been brought down, and the Opium War might have been prevented.

An angry opposition press hunted for parties to blame. Some faulted Graham for couching his resolution in such political language of “negligence” rather than targeting the war head-on: if the Conservatives had “proposed to stop the war at all events, and to prevent every infraction of the laws of China with respect to opium—so surely would Parliament have gone along with them, in censuring the conduct of the Ministers,” said the Spectator. Another paper observed that though the ministry survived the vote of censure (barely), nevertheless “they are condemned by two hundred and sixty-two of the people’s representatives, and by the nation at large the principle of the war is all but universally condemned.” A majority of just nine votes out of more than five hundred “would have been fatal to the existence of any preceding Administration,” said one critic, “and it argues a contempt of the opinion of Parliament, and a degree of assurance never equalled, to persevere in plunging the country into war on the strength of such a vote.”

Any lingering hopes that the closeness of the vote in the House of Commons might still derail the war were destroyed a month later with the failure in the House of Lords of a much more explicit motion to blame the crisis on British opium traders. Palmerston’s Conservative antagonists had a clear majority in the upper house, and the motion was expected to pass until the elderly Duke of Wellington—the general who had defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, Britain’s greatest living military hero, a former prime minister, and a Conservative—broke with his party to deliver an adamantly pro-Palmerston speech that silenced the motion’s supporters and sent it to a quick death.

Wellington said he had looked into the cause of the war and was positive that “it could not be opium.” The lanky, seventy-one-year-old “Iron Duke” argued that it was entirely about the protection of British lives in the far corners of the world, an unquestionably fair use of military power. The dispatch of a naval fleet was the only fitting and just response, he believed, to the rash and violent actions of Lin Zexu against Elliot and the British merchants.

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China’s Decline Under Daoguang

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 302-304:

Conditions in China were getting worse under Daoguang’s reign. By the time he took the throne, and to some degree beginning even with his father, Jiaqing, it becomes easier to speak of the empire each sovereign inherited rather than what he created or built. They, and the emperors and regents to follow, would have their successes—the dynasty would, after all, survive into the early twentieth century—but rarely did they leave China in a more solid position than they had found it. By the early nineteenth century, an inexorable process of decline was setting in, the slow setting of a sun that had reached its zenith under Qianlong in the late 1700s. Jiaqing had done his best, making strong efforts to rein in the corruption of the military and suppress the White Lotus and other rebellions. But under the rule of his son Daoguang, new problems would plague the empire even as old ones kept coming back in different forms.

Patronage, bribery, and embezzlement were the accepted norm among civil officials, especially in the lower orders. Population pressures on the land continued unabated, and Han Chinese settlers seeking an escape from the crowding continued to move into mountainous regions of the empire that had long been home to indigenous peoples, sparking incidents of ethnic violence. A breakdown of trust between the government and peasants worsened. The military was weakened by Jiaqing’s cost-cutting measures after the White Lotus campaigns. Through the 1830s, internal rebellions erupted in different parts of the empire with regularity, every year or two—some led by religious sects similar to the White Lotus, others by rebel factions bonded together by regional or ethnic ties. The many divisions that ran naturally through a vast and diverse multiethnic empire were turning more frequently and more visibly into fractures.

Opium wove its way right through the tattering fabric of this restive society, the single most visible symbol of the Chinese government’s inability to control its people. In spite of Daoguang’s strong desire to control the drug, coastal enforcements on smuggling had failed so completely that by the later 1830s when a foreign ship materialized near the coast it would find not naval patrols but thousands of buyers standing along the shore and whistling to it in hopes that it would drop anchor and sell to them. A major north–south land transport route for opium through Hunan province formed the locus of a series of uprisings that took place in central China in 1836, and imperial troops transferred inland to pacify them turned out to be such heavy users of opium themselves that they could barely fight. Ironically, they had acquired their drug habits in the course of their previous mission, which was to police the smugglers on the coast near Canton.

China’s rising domestic unrest caught the attention of foreigners in Canton, who worried about damage to tea and silk production from the disturbances in the interior. However, some of them also sensed opportunity in the ones that took place on China’s periphery. In 1833, an explosive revolt of aborigines on Taiwan threatened Qing imperial control of the island for several months, in the midst of which it was announced in Britain’s parliament that Taiwan had “declared its independence of the Chinese.” Some foreigners had already begun touting Taiwan as a potential British colony, a base from which they could conduct their trade with China free from the restrictions of Canton. They argued that, morally speaking, to take control of Taiwan would be nothing like trying to seize territory on the Chinese mainland, because Taiwan had been a Dutch possession prior to its conquest by Qianlong’s grandfather Kangxi, so they judged it to be merely a colony of the Qing Empire rather than essential Chinese territory. According to one Canton English-language newspaper, the Taiwanese were a conquered people, “vassals of China; not willingly, but in consequence of bloody wars,” and so even foreigners who opposed aggression toward China shouldn’t object to the British taking control of the island, which the paper judged would be praiseworthy even if only for the sake of “ridding its people of the tyranny of the Chinese.”

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