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Lofty Expectations and Bitter Reality: Chinese Interpreters for the US Army during the Second World War, 1941−1945

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Between 1941 and 1945, the Nationalist government supervised a program that trained more than 3,300 male college students and recent graduates to serve as interpreters for the US military in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater. These interpreters made the Sino-US alliance a reality by enabling American servicemen to communicate with other Chinese. But despite the program’s operational success, interpreters suffered from intractable morale problems. Interpreters began their service with lofty expectations. Senior officials and intellectuals encouraged them to see themselves as central figures in China’s struggle for national rejuvenation. They would uplift the country by convincing American servicemen to see Chinese as equals and by introducing American technology, traits, and habits to the Chinese Army. It all sounded glorious to cadets undergoing training, but actual interpreter service proved bitterly disappointing to most young men. They found their monotonous duties unworthy of their position. The Nationalist government, for its part, lacked the capacity to keep them clothed, paid, and fed. Their own compatriots—soldiers and civilians alike—regarded them with suspicion. Most frustrating of all, American soldiers refused to treat them as equals. By examining interpreter morale problems in China from 1941 to 1945, this article enriches our understanding of wartime interpreting, China in a global World War II, and sources of friction in the Sino-US alliance.

Affiliations: 1: John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding, Darthmauth College, Hanover, New Hampshire 03755, USA


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