Tarnished Dragon: a review of Secret War in Shanghai

Secret War In Shanghai

When tales are told of heroic actions behind enemy lines, stories of men and women risking their lives against a despicable foe bent on eradicating a people and subjecting a world, legends of individuals wagering not only their own lives and treasure but those of countless others for information which could save all of them are told of World War 2, the scope and breadth of those narratives tend to be narrow. We think of the daring exploits of Britain’s Special Operations Executive or SOE instructed by Churchill to “set Europe ablaze.” Likely the author chooses the deeds of the men and women under the auspices of COL William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan of the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. The story may be even more martial and relate the operations conducted by the Special Air Services (SAS) or the Rangers as they lead the way to victory. Inevitably, though, the tales surround the European theater of operations, or perhaps at best the Mediterranean, and include operations in Africa as well. Seldom, if ever, does the tales of exploits in the Pacific theater get their own tale. Writers create very few books – or forbid a movie – that tell those tales.

From a military historical perspective there are recountings of the brave exploits beginning with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s a turning point in the war at Midway and the various liberating island hopping campaigns as the Allies move inexorably on their path to Japan. There are even movies, both academy award winning like Tora, Tora, Tora, Empire of the Sun, Midway, and Bridge over the River Kwai and the more mundane like the most recent version of Pearl Harbor.

Historians have spoken of or written extraordinarily little if anything regarding intelligence operations in the so-called Far East. There is a dearth of information on either the exploits of the Allies or the Axis powers in this regard. We have some information on the breaking of the Japanese Naval code JN- 20 which allowed America such a decisive victory at Midway or the diplomatic code PURPLE. The United States cracked the code before the onset of Pearl Harbor and American cryptanalysts decoded the message breaking off negotiations and declaring war before the Japanese diplomatic staff could, but not before the attack occurred.

Included clipping

When I discovered Bernard Wasserstein’s 1999 book Secret War in Shanghai: Treachery, Subversion and collaboration in the Second World War in a used book stall at a market in Cambridge, UK, it seemed it might be able to fill part of the gap in my historical knowledge. The title teases of lurid tales which may have contributed to how our intelligence services performed during their early years and what the deeds of their adversaries were before dissolution at war’s end. Inside the dust jacket it seemed the author would reveal the history of deceit and espionage both before the beginning of the war and during those turbulent years. My copy even had an undated and unnamed newspaper clipping disputing the authors claim of collaboration among the members of the British concession – as the foreign occupied and controlled areas of Shanghai were known. Denial of this kind could only mean some of the story was likely true.

Unfortunately, the book did not tell the story for which I was looking. Or at least not completely, coherently, or with the flow needed to convey the tale it purported was there.

Wasserstein does a fairly adequate job describing the state of the various European concessions founded following the humiliating defeat of China during the previous centuries Opium War. This grounding is enough to help the reader understand the basic system in place within the concessions and how these concessions related to both Imperial Japan immediately preceding the invasion, their erstwhile Axis partners and the disjointed and disparate citizens of the Allied nations in the city. The story fragments from here, both in location, time, and the primary characters followed throughout the remainder of the conflict.

Historical retrospectives require three primary aspects. Facts, or at least properly documented and cross-referenced suppositions, preferably supported by multiple sources. A coherent and logical timeline of events; not necessarily chronological but at least ordered and consistent and including geographic constraints. Finally, a compelling story which carries the reader along with the action; subtly departing the knowledge of time, date, and actor to reinforce the narrative.

Professor Wasserstein does well with the facts of the matter. However, you could and – as with any historical account – should question his assumptions and conclusions based on those facts. However, he maintains an impressive handle on the various factors and events which transpired over the course of the city’s direct involvement in World War 2 and the developments preceding and following the conflict. Any secondary school textbook can convey these data points with equal clarity. It is with the second, and most importantly third, aspects we must concern ourselves with to measure the true success of a history.

The book begins to falter, but does not fail, with the second aspect of a coherent and geographically constrained timeline. The story, as conveyed, jumps back and forth as it moves forward. Going over ground to follow other threads of history to cover a more coherent whole. This is not necessarily a poor way to convey the story. In fact, it may enhance the reader’s understanding as the author fills additional gaps for a better sense of the overarching tale. This is difficult to balance in the overall story, however. It also wanders away geographically from Shanghai as it covers the greater intelligence activities carried out in China during the war.

Many authors struggle with the best order in which to tell a complex story. Seasoned professionals like Professor Christopher Andrew in his The Sword and the Shield; The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB; which covers decades of Soviet intelligence activities in every corner of the world, must make strategic decisions regarding story flow. Additionally, newcomers such as Svetlana Loknova in The Spy Who Changed History covering the interwar period of Soviet intelligence activities across the entirety of the United States also face a daunting challenge. Regrettably, Secret War in Shanghai does not quite deftly cover the shifts in time and place as either Professor Andrew or Ms. Loknova.

Unquestioningly, the one aspect which can transform a history from the bland repetition of facts and figures found in secondary school tomes into a true adventure for the reader is our final aspect, a compelling and engaging story.

Now, yes, all histories are by their very nature “stories” but what authors need to transcend into a true adventure which compels the reader to stay engaged is drive and character. It is here that true storytellers stand out. It is also, perhaps, not surprising that those who are primarily academics rarely succeed in this regard.

A former journalist is usually more successful conveying a history into a tale. Ben Macintyre is the undisputed master of crafting such tales. Agent Zigzag, A Spy Among Friends, Operation Mincemeat, and Rogue Heroes all find a central tale and character or small troupe of characters with which to take the reader along on the journey of discovery. Even the chaotic Hungarian uprising of 1956 produced notable characters we, if not exactly root for, sympathize with as seen in Victor Sebestyen’s excellent history Twelve Days: Revolution 1956.

This is where Professor Wasserstein falls short.

It is not that the story is bereft of characters. A possible Indian princess, a slew of underworld enforcers, small time hoods, even dashing soldiers and sailors attempting to thwart the enemy. None of these individuals become more than a cardboard cutout of their stereotype. We feel no cheer as they succeed and no remorse as they fail.

Secret War in Shanghai presents facts and figures and gives us the time, date and persons concerned in an important, and often underrepresented portion, of military history and particularly intelligence history. Wasserstein presents these dates in an unconvincing narrative with a lack of character and drive. While I was glad to see this portion of history represented; I am disappointed it didn’t quite get the telling it deserves.

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One thought on “Tarnished Dragon: a review of Secret War in Shanghai

  1. I love the mysterious presence of the newspaper article! It really does help one realize the importance of understanding the complexities of historical events — and made this one more “real” for you as a researcher! .And you are so right about authors struggling with the decisions for presentation of complex setting and events… I see it now with fellow writers grappling with the amazing and frightening social changes we are in the midst of right now… Thank you for a very interesting post!

    Liked by 1 person

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