College of Arts & Sciences


Walking the Line

History grad student seeks the truth in two sides of a tale.

By Rachel Johnson

Photo by Vernon Doucette

Zach Fredman (GRS’16) says records of the past don’t contain what happened, but what people say happened. And his dissertation research on United States/China relations during World War II is revealing that people have very different stories. Recent winner of the Samuel Flagg Bemis Dissertation Research Grant, awarded by the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, Fredman is spending the spring semester—and the next few years—combing through archives in the wartime capital of the former Republic of China, to get as close to the truth as possible.

What are you seeking in Chongqing?

Most of the existing writing is on generals, top diplomats, but if you really start digging deep, there’s a lot more. Over a hundred thousand Americans ended up in China during the war and in the months following the Japanese surrender—mostly soldiers, but also a lot of missionaries, businesspeople, technical government experts, journalists. They went to southwest China where there weren’t that many foreigners—most were in treaty ports, places like Tianjin, Shanghai on the coast. I’m looking at specifically low- and mid-level people. I like reading about these daily interactions and thinking about what this American presence in China meant.

What is your research showing?

I’m seeing that a lot of Chinese were interested in American models and organizational methods in technology and also were looking up to the U.S. intellectually because of experiences they had at missionary schools in China or American universities. And the Americans there were excited; they found all these Chinese who were English-speaking, so there was sort of an instant affinity. What we see today as American empire overseas—this network of military bases, the idea that other countries should democratize, should modernize in ways that follow American methods—you really see all of that developing in 1940s China.

Have you discovered any surprises?

I found a 1940 police investigation of American sailors. After the war between China and Japan began, America was still neutral; we had important trade relations with Japan. Many in the American government didn’t like what Japan was doing, but they were afraid of getting into a war. But there was one American naval unit on the Yangtze River, and it got stuck in Chongqing while the city was getting bombed horrendously by the Japanese. Up until then, it was probably the worst-bombed place on earth, so this population was really suffering. But the police report noted these American sailors getting blind drunk and doing things like pushing prostitutes into the river at night; there were all kinds of noise, gambling, and indulging. America had such verbal support for China, but if you were Chinese and you were in Chongqing, the main American presence was drunken sailors causing problems when your city was getting bombed.

How do you walk the line between different histories? Which do you believe?

It’s tough. I think with a project like this, to really do it right, you’ve got to understand the history of both countries, and also how history is written in each—see what the conversations are about.

Is your job to figure out what happened exactly or simply to report on what you find and let people draw their own conclusions?

I feel I’m trying to get as close to the truth as anyone possibly can with history. I think historians are trying to find lessons that are useful in the present day. China and the United States are the two big economic and military superpowers of the world, and they have complex and troubled relations. I hope that my own research can help to eliminate some of the tension.