To understand her achievement, try a thought experiment. Imagine that, thanks to a stew of pecuniary and geopolitical factors, public discussion of Auschwitz had long been muffled and that officials not only in Germany but in the United States and even Israel had colluded in the cover-up. Then imagine a previously unknown 29-year-old almost single-handedly smashing the taboo.
The horrors of the Nanking massacre were in many ways not so different from those at Auschwitz -- shocking not only in their huge scale but even more so in the gruesome eyeball-to-eyeball sadism. Over a period of several weeks in the winter of 1937 to 1938, at least 150,000 and perhaps as many as 300,000 Chinese men, women, and children died in an organized exercise in terror at the hands of a conquering Japanese army. Yet, until Chang came along, the carnage had been a great unmentionable among American scholars of the region.
As Iris Chang noted in taking on the project, the silence over Nanking was unusual compared to the massive attention given to other such modern mass atrocities. There have been hundreds of books about the Nazi Holocaust alone, countless others about Turkey's Armenian massacre, the air bombing of Guernica, the London Blitz, the Dresden firestorm, and, of course, the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Why was Nanking different? At its core, the issue was money. Almost from the moment World War II ended, the then impoverished Japanese government made one of its primary goals fending off the potential tidal wave of claims for compensation. There followed a highly orchestrated campaign to keep the more controversial aspects of Japan's past from intruding on its future. So successful was that campaign that, as I wrote in a 1995 book, the total sum Japan paid to war victims of all nations had come to little more than $1 billion. Any subsequent additions are likely minimal. By contrast, Germany had already paid $72 billion to Jews, Poles, and other victims of the Holocaust by the mid 1990s, and continued to make further payments thereafter.
Nazi Germany's policy of premeditated genocide had no counterpart in Japan, of course. But imperial Japan was notoriously brutal in its treatment not only of civilians in fallen cities like Nanking and Singapore, but of prisoners of war.
In a fair post-war world, millions of such victims and their heirs would have been entitled to compensation. But Japan pleaded poverty and, in 1951, in a spirit of Cold War solidarity, the United States led more than 40 nations in renouncing their citizens' claims on Tokyo. The 1951 agreement did not rule out the possibility that Japan would make payments as its economy recovered. But Tokyo stuck rigidly to its not-a-penny policy, with the assiduous support of the U.S. State Department in fighting off claimants. The State Department even slapped down a number of lawsuits by U.S. servicemen who had suffered abominably in Japanese prisoner of war camps, in many cases serving as de facto slaves, doing the most dangerous and unhealthy jobs in Japanese factories and mines.