The false certainty of hindsight makes it seem inevitable that the Japanese colony of Taiwan would, after the Second World War, come under Nationalist (Kuomintang or KMT) control; and it was surely logical that Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT would flee to the island in the dying days of the Chinese Civil War and make it the seat of the Nationalist Chinese state, a fortress from which to contemplate retaking the mainland. How different things were in reality, how much more complicated and interesting were the many twists and turns.

In Accidental State: Chiang Kai-shek, the United States, and the Making of Taiwan, Taiwanese historian Hsiao-ting Lin – drawing on both English- and Chinese-language archival materials, including newly released official files and personal papers – argues that the formation of a Nationalist state in Taiwan was more “accidental” than the result of any deliberate planning by the various players.

Let’s turn back to the year 1921, when Chiang Kai-shek first set foot in Taiwan. Returning from Canton to Shanghai by sea, the then struggling thirty-four-year-old revolutionary made a stopover in the port city of Keelung. He was unimpressed:

Chiang observed that the port was ill-managed and the staff poorly disciplined, which led him to note in his diary: “the fate of imperial Japan is doomed.” Chiang’s preliminary, negative impression of Japan’s colonial rule over Taiwan was not, however, coupled with any indication that he was thinking about the island’s return, whether immediately or in the future, to the Chinese motherland.

And even as the Nationalists grew in strength and took power, Taiwan’s return to the motherland was not something that kept them up at night. As Hsiao-ting Lin writes:

throughout most of the 1920s and the 1930s, no leader of the Chinese central government, whether located in Peking or, after 1928, in Nanjing, made any serious effort to claim that Taiwan was a legal part of Republican China. When Chinese constitutions were drafted in 1923, 1925, 1934, and 1936, recognizing practical realities, Taiwan was never claimed as a province or even a special region of China.

After war broke out with Japan in 1937, Chinese talk of reclaiming lost territories centered on areas in Manchuria. Taiwan – which China’s Qing dynasty government had ceded in perpetuity to Japan in 1895 following defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War – was not an issue. This changed, however, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, bringing the Americans into the conflict. In the lead up to the Cairo Conference of November 1943, when Chiang Kai-shek met with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill to decide on post-war reshaping of the world, the Nationalists were forced to decide exactly which territories to insist on reclaiming. They considered asking for Korea and the Ryukyus but decided this was not practical (in the case of the latter, the fact they had no navy deterred them). In a fascinating side note – and Accidental State is full of such treasures – we learn that President Roosevelt, “was more than pleased to have the Ryukyu Islands return to postwar China, an idea he had advanced to the Nationalists in 1942.”

Chiang left the Cairo Conference with broad promises that his government could take over the island after the war. The early years of KMT rule of Taiwan, however, were a disaster; it wasn’t long – February 28, 1947, to be exact – before corruption, mismanagement, food shortages, and hyperinflation led to mass discontent that boiled over into an uprising called the 2.28 Incident (or 2.28 Massacre, depending on your politics).

Author Lin passes over this seminal event with surprising brevity. Of the brutal suppression following the unrest he says:

The Nationalist forces launched a crackdown, squelched the opposition to the KMT, and helped reassert government control by the middle of March. Thousands of people, including Chinese mainlanders as well as Taiwanese, were killed or imprisoned for their real or perceived dissent, leaving the Taiwanese victims with a deep-rooted bitterness toward the Nationalist authorities, and by extension, toward all Chinese mainlanders.

Endnotes give only recommended readings, not more information. Nowhere – in text or notes – do we get detailed accounts of the horror, a closer look at the victims. There’s no attempt at a precise number, no breakdown of the number, almost nothing on the who, where, and how. Given 2.28’s continuing sensitivity – as the author admits – this raises alarm bells for a reader. Is this a pro-Chiang book? After all, the author is a research fellow and curator of the East Asia Collection at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, named after Republican president Herbert Hoover and still associated with prominent American conservatives. The institute was obviously sufficiently sympathetic to the KMT for the Chiang family to feel comfortable donating, in 2005, a treasure trove of documents, chief among them the handwritten diaries of Chiang Kai-shek from 1917 to 1972. (Some of the more sensitive personal comments have been redacted. However, family members have authorized that these be released in 2035.)

All in all, I don’t have a problem with the political balance of Accidental State. There are things passed over here and there, but I’ll give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s mostly because he thinks they’ve been covered elsewhere or he wants to avoid distractions from the main narrative. In fact, Lin paints a damning picture of Chiang as a ruthless politician who always made his own political survival the first priority. As a comparison, Accidental State gives a much less flattering account of Chiang than does The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China, Jay Taylor’s excellent but occasionally hagiographic biography (which also drew heavily on the Hoover Institution archives).

Chiang was not Taiwan’s savior – rather, as is commonly known, he was saved by the start of the Korean War in the summer of 1950. The American government had a little earlier washed its hands of him: “Truman issued a press statement on January 5, 1950, to the effect that Taiwan was clearly Chinese territory and that the United States harbored no ulterior motives concerning Taiwan. There would be no involvement in the Chinese civil war, nor would military assistance or advice be furnished to the Nationalists on Taiwan.”

However, the book makes clear that Taiwan’s fate was never a straight choice between Chiang and Mao. If the KMT had not moved to Taiwan (or done so under different leadership), it would have most likely come under an Allied or U.N. trusteeship. This was an idea promoted by the Taiwanese political elite and several American advisors, including George H. Kerr, who had been the American vice consul in Taipei and was the author of Formosa Betrayed.

Within weeks of Truman’s official rejection, Chiang Kai-shek stepped down as the ROC president; in reality, the “retired” Chiang was still trying to run things and undermine other KMT leaders.

Well before that, as the Nationalists’ hold on China had slipped and Chiang’s control of his subordinates waned, Western observers had lost confidence in Chiang and predicted China splitting: Communists in the north and regional warlords in the south. The Americans looked to bypass the Nationalist leadership and directly work with and aid regional anti-communist allies.

As part of this regional story, Lin gives a previously untold account of an abortive Yunnan independence attempt, highlighting the complicated multi-player intrigues of the time. Chiang was hoping to make the southeastern province of Yunnan a bastion from which to resist the advance of the Communists’ People’s Liberation Army. Unlike Taiwan, the sovereignty was settled (Japan had still not formally signed over its rights to Taiwan). The Nationalist governor of Yunnan Province, Lu Han, had other ideas than hosting Chiang; he secretly sent a request to the U.S. government. If the United States backed him, he would declare independence. Washington turned down the offer, and the governor promptly handed the province over to the Communists. With his last hope for a base on the mainland gone, Chiang was forced to make a speedy exit to Taiwan.

Among other fascinating topics covered in Accidental State is why Hainan Island – in some ways a more obvious choice for a KMT stronghold than Taiwan – played such a minor role in this saga.

Another section has a revisionist look at Chiang Kai-shek’s determination to take the fight back to the Communists during the Korean War years (1950–1953). Rhetoric about retaking the mainland was useful for propaganda purposes and for securing U.S. aid, but Chiang was half-hearted at best.

The conventional wisdom argues that, after the war broke out in Korea, Chiang Kai-shek strongly favored a military reinvasion of the Chinese mainland so as to restore his role in China. The Truman and Eisenhower presidencies, on the other hand, were inclined to simply contain the Chinese Communists. A crosscheck of both Chinese and English declassified documents now reveals that as the Korean War entered a stalemate, it was actually the military and intelligence chiefs in the Pentagon who took the lead in transforming the Nationalists’ grandiose but empty “military rollback” slogan into detailed courses of action for the purpose of U.S. geo-military interests in the Far East. While Washington urged Taipei to launch a military counteroffensive against the Communist-controlled territories of Hainan Island and the Southeast mainland, it was Chiang Kai-shek who now tried to avoid such an operation so as to keep his military supremacy intact within the Nationalist hierarchy, in addition to assuring Taiwan’s defense interests. In other words, in the early 1950s, when the American-favored General Sun Liren remained a perceived threat, Chiang placed political deliberations ahead of any other issue, giving priority to the consolidation of his Taiwan power base without truly thinking about a genuine counterattack on the mainland to overthrow Mao Zedong.

General Sun Liren (1900–1990) nicknamed “The Rommel of the East” was arrested in 1955 on fabricated charges of planning a coup. He remained under house arrest until released by President Lee Teng-hui in 1988. President Ma Ying-jeou made a public apology to Sun’s family in 2011.

Another example of Chiang Kai-shek’s political maneuvering described by Lin is his use of “a secret Japanese military unit to help train his ground forces, draft military plans, and carry out military ideological education so as to counterbalance the strong MAAG [American] influence and, more significantly as it turned out, to checkmate such Nationalist military leaders as Sun Liren, who had American support.”

The secret Japanese unit (called Baituan) devised a counteroffensive plan for the Communist mainland. Requiring a five-year preparation period, the end date was the spring of 1958, with the beachhead and base of operations to be the Pearl River Delta.

Accidental State is an important publication, a must-read for anyone serious about understanding how the Republic of China on Taiwan came to pass. Despite being an academic work of rigorous scholarship, this is a highly readable account of domestic and international intrigue, and it’s packed with page-turning details and insights.

Accidental State: Chiang Kai-shek, the United States, and the Making of Taiwan, is published by Harvard University Press. (March, 2016)