Japanese and Chinese names throughout are given in Japanese and Chinese order, in which the surname precedes the given name.As for the spellings of Chinese names, mainly the Pinyin system is used. However, the Wade-Giles system is also employed for words still commonly used: for instance, "Chiang Kai-shek" instead of "Jiang Jieshi." Words like "Nanjing" and "Nanking" are regarded as interchangeable.This article is part of the online project The Nanjing Massacre.

Fall of Nanking III: The Safety Zone and American Missionaries

The Nanking Safety Zone

In mid-November 1937, as the Japanese air raid on Nanking intensified, many wealthy Chinese and Westerners began leaving the city.

Especially after Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek officially declared that the Nationalist government of China would eventually transfer the capital from Nanking to Chungking and its military headquarters would be shifted to the transitional capital of Hankow on November 20, the scale of evacuation became much larger.¹

Following the departing Chinese government, most foreigners also decided to leave the city. A small number of Western businessmen and missionaries, however, chose to remain in the future battlefield. They were primarily American missionaries from the Episcopal, Disciples of Christ, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches.²

On November 22, 1937, trusting their privileged status as third-party nationals, those remaining foreigners voluntarily organized a committee called the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone to provide Chinese people with refuge and relief.

They elected a German businessman of Siemens China Corporation, John Rabe, as its chair presumably for not only his character but also his status as a Nazi (Japan and Germany signed the bilateral Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936).

“The Chinese authorities agreed to the idea of the Zone, though the military were naturally reluctant to move out of the area before the very last minute,” wrote American missionary Miner Searl Bates, a professor of History at the University of Nanking and a member of the International Committee, in April 1938.

“The Japanese authorities never formally recognized the Zone, but did say that they would not attack an area which was not occupied by Chinese troops. On this narrow margin of agreement, the Chinese promise to evacuate the area and the Japanese statement that they would not intentionally attack an unoccupied place, the Safety Zone was finally put through.”³

The Nanking Safety Zone was established in the western district of the city. It was composed of a score of refugee camps that occupied an area of about 3.4 square miles (8.6 square kilometers). On December 1, 1937, Mayor Ma Chaochun of Nanking met the International Committee and authorized them to take over the city’s administration once he and his staff were evacuated.⁴

The Japanese government issued the statement mentioned by Bates on Dec. 4 and, indeed, the Army did not subject the Safety Zone to concentrated air bombardment or shelling. Only a few shells landed in the Zone throughout the siege, which wounded some 40 refugees.⁵

Although the Committee’s proposal for a three-day armistice on Dec. 9 never materialized (see Introduction), the remaining Westerners, as well as local Chinese residents, thought the strains of war would be over and their lives would be secure once the Japanese troops took over the city.

However, when Chinese defense finally collapsed and the Japanese troops made their way into the city on Dec. 13, as Bates later noted, their hopes were “doomed to disappointment.”

Struggle against the Atrocities

“If I had not seen it with my own eyes, I would not have believed it,” wrote the committee chairman Rabe in his diary on that day.

“They [Japanese soldiers] smash open windows and doors and take whatever they like…. I watched with my own eyes as they looted the café of our German baker Herr Kiessling…. Of the perhaps one thousand disarmed soldiers that we had quartered at the Ministry of Justice, between 400 and 500 were driven from it with their hands tied. We assume they were shot since we later heard several salvos of machine-gun fire. These events have left us frozen with horror.”⁶

As the entering Japanese soldiers wreaked havoc, more and more people rushed into the refugee camps inside the Safety Zone, raising its population to an overwhelming 200,000–250,000. Day after day the members of the International Committee received reports about wholesale pillage, arson, rape, whimsical murder and mass execution, which kept them completely busy for the next six or seven weeks.

Rabe and American missionary Lewis S. C. Smythe, who was also a professor of Sociology at the University of Nanking and the secretary of the International Committee, recorded atrocities of the Japanese troops and reported to the Japanese embassy repeatedly.

They and other Committee members frequently contacted Consul-General Okazaki Katsuo, Second Secretary (later Acting Consul-General) Fukui Kiyoshi and Attaché Fukuda Tokuyasu to deal with the anarchic situation.⁷

Dr. Robert Wilson and Dr. C. S. Trimmer, medical doctors at the American-administered University Hospital, had to treat numerous patients and go through surgical operations every day without running water and electricity for weeks as a consequence of rape, torture and bayonet practices with Chinese POWs by the Japanese soldiers. Reverend James McCallum kept the hospital running as the administrator of the institution.

Rev. John Magee, the chairman of the International Red Cross Nanking Branch, also took care of the wounded at the hospital and filmed some of them with his 16mm movie camera to visually record the atrocities.

Another missionary, Willhelmina Vautrin, or Minnie Vautrin as called by her colleagues, protected thousands of women from being raped as she oversaw the refugee camp at Ginling Women’s Arts and Science College where she served as the acting president.⁸

As well as protesting to the Japanese embassy on almost daily basis, Bates, Magee and George A. Fitch, the head of the YMCA at Nanking, actively wrote of the chaotic conditions created by the Japanese troops, mimeographed or retyped their stories over and over and sent them to their friends, government officials, and Christian organizations so as to let the world, especially the American public, know what was going on in the terrorized city.

They hoped that the U. S. government would intervene, or at least apply the Neutrality Act of 1937 to the “China Incident,” which would have made it illegal for any American business to sell war materials to Japan.

A letter of Bates to the American Consul in January 1938, for instance, explained how the Safety Zone had been “tenaciously maintained” and needed help “amid dishonor by soldiers, murdering, wounding, wholesale raping, resulting in violent terror.”⁹

Fitch succeeded in smuggling the films shot by Magee out of China when he temporarily left the country in January 1938. That year he traveled throughout the United States, giving speeches about what he witnessed in Nanking along with the films that showed haunting images of Chinese victims.¹⁰

In the United States the Committee on the Far East of the Foreign Missions Conference received scores of letters from those missionaries in Nanking. After weeks of consideration, they decided to release the letters in February 1938 despite the possible adverse effect on the Christian movement in Japan, which led to the eventual publication of their letters in some magazines such as Readers’ Digest in mid-1938.¹¹

Some of their vivid accounts of the Nanking Atrocities in the official documents, protests, letters and diaries were also collected in such books as H. J. Timperley’s What War Means (in America it was titled Japanese Terror in China), Hsü Shuhsi’s The War Conduct of the Japanese in 1938, and another work by Hsü, Documents of the Nanking Safety Zone, in 1939, which promoted China’s cause in the war to the world.

After the War

Refugees who gathered at the headquarters of the International Committee to receive the first cash relief. February 1938.

In 1946, the year after Japan lost the Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East convened in Tokyo to try Japan’s Class-A war crime suspects.

Among the members of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone who took the witness stand were Robert Wilson, Miner Searle Bates and John Magee. George A. Fitch, Lewis Smythe and James McCallum filed affidavits with their diaries and letters. One of the books by Hsü, Documents of the Nanking Safety Zone, was also adduced in court.¹²

Had it not been for those American missionaries, the tribunal and the world would never have known of the cruel nature and inconceivable scale of the Nanking Atrocities as we know today.

However, in China during the Korean War (1950–53) those available records of the International Committee members were negatively used in an attempt by the Chinese government to arouse patriotism against the United States. In the propaganda campaign many missionaries were stigmatized as Americans who sacrificed Chinese people’s lives to protect their property, who guided the Imperial Army of Japan into the city and who cooperated with the Japanese troops to round up prisoners of war in the refugee camps.

As its after-effect, even the extensive study on the topic done by the researchers at the University of Nanking in 1962 argued that Westerners assisted the invaders in executing Chinese in Nanking. The research blamed those foreigners for not having any intention to prevent the ongoing atrocities.¹³

Yale Divinity School Library holds many of the personal letters and diaries written by the missionaries.

This erroneous perception of the members of the International Committee in China evidently reversed in the 1980s as more historical documents became accessible and more thorough studies came out. Today many of the missionaries’ private diaries and letters that elaborately depicted the scale and character of the Nanking Atrocities are collected at the Yale Divinity School Library.

“Basically, there are two types of people [who often visit the library]. Scholarly researchers who are trying to do serious research and there are other people who are making documentaries of various kinds,” said Martha Smalley, the archivist at the Yale Divinity School Library.

“I think we’ve never had Japanese ultra-nationalists come here and look at these records because it is very clear to anyone, looking at these records, that it [the Nanking Atrocities] occurred. You have several different people giving independent accounts and they were all documenting the same events. There could not possibly be any kind of way that they were making up what they saw….”

“They [the missionaries] were not particularly complimentary about the Chinese Army, either. But they were reacting towards the events that happened to actual people, women and children…. They were not making any kind of political statements at all. In these letters they were talking about the specific events that happened…. Many of them were educational missionaries. They were professors in the university and they were just trying to help the people.”¹⁴


  1. Tokushi Kasahara, Nanking Nanminku no Hyakunichi [One Hundred Days in the Nanking Safety Zone] (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1995), 60.
  2. Tien-wei Wu, in the preface of American Missionary Eyewitnesses to the Nanking Massacre 1937–1938, ed. Martha L. Smalley (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale Divinity School Library, 1997), ii.
  3. American Missionary Eyewitnesses to the Nanking Massacre 1937–1938, 11.
  4. Timothy Brook, “Introduction: Documenting the Rape of Nanking,” in Documents on the Rape of Nanking, 3.
  5. Kasahara, Nanking Nanminku no Hyakunichi [One Hundred Days in the Nanking Safety Zone], 72; “Terror in Nanking,” the Times (London); Hata, Nanking Jiken [The Nanjing Incident], 83–84.
  6. Rabe, 67–68.
  7. Most of the official documents were printed in Hsü Shuhsi, Documents of the Nanking Safety Zone (Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 1939). The entire book is reprinted in Documents of the Rape of Nanking.
  8. American Missionary Eyewitnesses to the Nanking Massacre 1937–1938, 2–10; Kasahara, Nanking Nanminku no Hyakunichi [One Hundred Days in the Nanking Safety Zone], 1–3. See also Wilson’s Diary in Documents of the Rape of Nanking.
  9. Quoted in Paul A. Varg, Missionaries, Chinese, and Diplomats: The American Protestant Missionary Movement in China, 1890–1952 (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1958), 260.
  10. American Missionary Eyewitnesses to the Nanking Massacre 1937–1938, 4.
  11. Varg, 258–261. See also “The Sack of Nanking,” Readers’ Digest (July 1938): 28–31 and “We Were In Nanking,” Readers’ Digest (October 1938): 41–44.
  12. Arnold C. Brackman, The Other Nuremberg: The Untold Story of the Tokyo War Crimes Trials (New York: William Morrow, 1987), 178–180; Brook, 16; Hata, Nanking Jiken [The Nanjing Incident], 33–34; Fujiwara, “‘Tokyo Saiban ni yoru Dechiage’ Setsu koso ga Dechiage [The Theory of ‘Fabrication at the Tokyo War Crimes Trial’ Is the Real Fabrication], in Nanking Daigyakusatsu Hiteiron 13 no Uso [Thirteen lies in the Nanjing Massacre Deniers’ Claims] (Tokyo: Kashiwa Shobo, 1999), 20.
  13. Mark Eykholt, “Aggression, Victimization, and Chinese Historiography of the Nanjing Massacre,” in The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography, ed. Joshua A. Fogel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 24–26.
  14. Martha L. Smalley, interview by author, New Haven, Connecticut, 25 January 2000.




Content of this site was originally submitted for the degree of Master of Arts in the Graduate School of Journalism of the University of Missouri-Columbia in August 2000.

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Journalistic Historian

Journalistic Historian

This account is created to host my Master’s degree project on the Nanjing Massacre that I produced in 2000.

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