The Rape of Nanking sold more than half a million copies when it was first published in the U. S., and according to The New York Times, received general critical acclaim. Iris Chang became an instant celebrity in the U. S.; she was awarded honorary degrees, invited to give lectures and to discuss the Nanking Massacre on shows such as Good Morning America, Nightline, and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and was profiled by The New York Times and featured on the cover of Reader's Digest. The book was on the New York Times' Best Seller list for 10 weeks and sold more than 125,000 copies in four months. Hillary Clinton invited her to the White House, U. S. historian Stephen Ambrose described her as "maybe the best young historian we've got", and the Organization of Chinese Americans named her National Woman of the Year. The book's popularity prompted a lengthy book tour, with Chang visiting 65 cities in over a year and a half.
The book received praise from news media. The Wall Street Journal wrote that it was the "first comprehensive examination of the destruction of this Chinese imperial city", and that Chang "skillfully excavated from oblivion the terrible events that took place". The Atlantic Monthly described the book as "a crushing indictment of the Japanese army's behavior". The Chicago Tribune called it "a powerful new work of history and moral inquiry" and stated that "Chang takes great care to establish an accurate accounting of the dimensions of the violence." The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that it was a "compelling account of a horrendous episode that, until recently, has been largely forgotten", and that "animals do not behave the way the Japanese troops of the Imperial Army behaved."
According to William C. Kirby, Professor of History at Harvard University, Chang "shows more clearly than any previous account just what [the Japanese] did", and that she "draws connections between the slaughter in Europe and in Asia of millions of innocents during World War II". Ross Terrill, an associate in research at the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University, wrote that the book is "scholarly, an exciting investigation and a work of passion". Beatrice S. Bartlett, Emeritus Professor of History at Yale University, wrote, "Iris Chang's research on the Nanking holocaust yields a new and expanded telling of this World War II atrocity and reflects thorough research."