Book Review: Barbara Tuchman’s Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45

When we think of China today, we think of a nation growing very fast economically and taking its place as one of the great powers of the world.  Getting to that point–or getting to that point again, if one takes a long view of history–took a course of great suffering and several unexpected turns (how unexpected they were depends upon whom you are talking to). Understanding that course is essential to understanding where China and the Chinese are today, and a key reference is still Barbara Tuchman’s Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45.  Told through the career of one of this country’s unique generals, it documents not only the course of China itself from the end of the Qing Dynasty to the end of World War II but the course of American policy (civilian and military) and how that policy interacted with the realities of China to, at best, not hinder the Communist victory in 1949.

In reading this book, one needs to keep in mind its central purpose: to show that the “loss” of China in 1949 was not caused by pro-Communist people in our own government but by the realities of China in general and the Kuomintang (Nationalist) government in particular, led by Chiang Kai-Shek.  It’s easy to forget that the one event since World War II that has galvanised the American left more than any other was the “Red Scare” of the 1950’s.  That scare, in turn, was given life in no small measure by the fall of Nationalist China.  It’s supremely ironic, therefore, that the beginning of the reversal of American isolation of the People’s Republic of China was presided over by the left’s bête noire, Richard Nixon, a process begun shortly after the book’s publication.

On 10 October 1911 (the “double tenth”) anti-Qing revolutionaries staged a coup in Wuhan.  They chose as their leader Li Yuan-Hung, the regimental commander who was hiding under his bed.  Told that he was to lead the revolution or be shot, he chose the former, and the beginning of the end of China’s last imperial dynasty was at hand.

The following month Joseph Stilwell made his first visit to China.  The scion of an old prominent Yankee family, he was a West Point graduate and a career Army officer with a strong sense of duty and a dislike for many of the trappings of officer life.  He had a gift for languages, and learned Chinese before his first trip.  That knowledge made him over the long haul one of the most knowledgeable “China hands” the U.S. had at its disposal, albeit one whose language skills were not matched by his diplomacy.

In the collapse of the Qing dynasty, the system for governing the country was decapitated, which devolved the governing of the country to the provinces.  That was the source of the “warlord” system which dominated Chinese politics in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and led one observer to call the situation “democrazy”.  More to the point, Sun Yat-Sen, the founder of the Republic, characterised his country as not one China, but a “sheet of loose sand”.  The centripetal tendency of Chinese politics–not understood by Americans–is a reason the People’s Republic acts the ways it does towards dissenters, as they proved fatal to the Kuomintang.

After Sun’s death, leadership of the Kuomintang ended up with his brother-in-law, Chiang Kai-Shek.  A Chinese politician of the old school, Chiang attempted to pull things together through a system of patronage and playing one warlord/governor/general off against another and, in doing so, insure his survival.  The one group of people he had absolutely no use for were the Communists, doubtless because they opposed the moneyed classes which bankrolled him.  The history of the Kuomintang and the Communists is complicated, because in the beginning the Kuomintang modelled itself after the Soviet Communist Party and had Soviet advisors.  Chiang attempted to exterminate the Communists after formally splitting with them, which led to the famous “Long March” to Yenan.

Stilwell, after serving in France during World War I, was posted in China in various capacities during the 1920’s and 1930’s.  He supervised the building of a road near the Yellow River and got to meet many of the political figures of the time in North China (he was stationed in Beijing and Tianjin).  One of the more interesting was the “Christian Warlord” Feng Yu-Hsiang, who baptised his troops with a fire hose and taught them evangelicals hymns.  In addition to that, he also taught them trades and to treat the people properly, as the Communists were to do in Yenan a few years later.  Stilwell also found what just about everyone else who has visited China has found: some of the most charming and beautiful people on the planet.

Bringing up Feng brings up the subject of the missionary effort in China.  It’s easy to forget that China was the mission field par excellence for the last half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth.  But missions were vastly different.  In contrast to today, where American elites are as little inclined to be Christian missionaries as they are to serve in the military, the Christian mission was very much a Main Line effort, both in terms of the denominations and the family origins of the missionaries, including Franklin Roosevelt’s mother’s family.  Seldom have the U.S. ruling classes had so much foreign experience of any kind.  One thing that the elites of the day shared with those we have now is a childlike faith in the Chinese ability to embrace Western democracy, at that time through the effects of the mission work.  This system, with its mission stations and protections for foreigners extended to the missionaries, was criticised at the time, but both facilities and missionaries turn up often in the narrative.  At the end of the book, Tuchman states that Christianity did not address the needs of the Chinese, but later events have shown that the missionaries, having started the work, simply needed to step aside for the greatest Christian revival in human history.

Chiang’s method was a recipe for corruption.  It just might have triumphed, however, had it not been for one of the rude interruptions of history: the Japanese invasion of China, starting with the north in 1931 and moving southward through the decade and into the next.  When the United States was kicked into World War II by Pearl Harbour, Stilwell was assigned to the Chinese forces on the east side of Burma.  The Japanese were swift in their conquests in South-east Asia, swallowing up the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and ultimately Burma itself.  The British had never had a serious military challenge in most of their empire, and the Japanese basically overran Burma in short order.

Stilwell, caught with about a hundred others and trapped, opted to walk out of Burma.  He even refused the services of Robert “God is My Co-Pilot” Scott, who came to fly him out.  If he expected others to walk out, he did also.  So his party, many sick and wounded, set out on a miserable march northward.  It’s an epic that rivals the Communists’ trek in difficulty if not in distance.  Along with Stilwell was Baptist medical missionary Gordon Seagrave, whose Burmese nurses–singing Christian hymns and songs along the way–seemed to fare best.  The walk out exemplified much of what was best in Stilwell–his willingness to share the hardships of those under him, his devotion to duty irrespective of cost to himself, and his dogged determination to meet an objective.

Once out Stilwell had to face his two biggest problems: Chiang Kai-Shek and the British.  The latter were the usual obstacles to progress.  Their first goal was to keep their empire in general and their treaty-enforced place in China in particular, and often ran interference against Stilwell to fulfil both goals.  Stilwell in turn disliked the British and, in his style, wasn’t reticent about letting that out.

With Chiang things were more complicated.  Both Roosevelt and Stilwell were convinced that China was to become a great power, the former through his mother’s family experience and the latter through his own.  Roosevelt additionally wanted to help China’s entry into the world stage.  Chiang’s method of power holding, however, prevented him from seeing a successful military figure from emerging among his generals, to say nothing about the skimming from the top he was doing with American aid.  He turned his military strategy into a large delaying tactic, irritating the more proactive Stilwell to no end.  Most of the book is taken up with Stilwell’s struggles with “Peanut” (the code name for Chiang Kai-Shek) over military strategy.  Stilwell was able to get enough authority over enough troops–and trained many of them personally, as was his style–to win Myitkyina back from the Japanese and open up a larger flow of supply to China, both by air and land.

Chiang’s continued back-pedaling, however, combined with Stilwell’s ever-difficult relationship with the British, made follow-up of this victory difficult.  The result of this was a diplomatic “Hail Mary pass” if there ever was one: Roosevelt asked Chiang to make Stilwell commander over the entire Chinese army.  Chiang, shamed at the request, came back with his own request: remove Stilwell.  Roosevelt complied and Stilwell’s career in the CBI (China-Burma-India) theatre was at an end.

One thing that Tuchman attempts to explore was Stilwell’s regard for the Communists.  He was so frustrated with Chiang that he was certainly ready to consider working with them, but Chiang blocked that relationship.  Stilwell didn’t see the Chinese as much Communistic, which probably elicited snickers when the book was published but has proven correct, especially since the death of Chairman Mao.  (The Soviets were never really sold on Chinese Communist orthodoxy’s purity, which is one reason it took so long for them to back Mao and his party and why they were shown in the door in China.)  Stilwell also saw China as a great manufacturing power, this before Japan led East Asia on its export-driven road to success after World War II.

Tuchman remains one of this country’s great historians, although occasionally one gets lost in her battle descriptions.  It was a special pleasure reading a book that showed signs of a serious editor at work, which is more than we generally get these days (such as this).  She wrote when many of the principals in the story were still living (Stilwell himself died of cancer in 1946) and had a better feel of what a World War II narrative should be like than we do now.

My only regret is that I did not read this (and many other books like it) before my foray into China in 1981.  It is a tribute that Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45 remains the definitive narrative on the subject forty years after its first publication.  It is an era that is too easily forgotten, but it’s too important of a moment in American–and Chinese–history to set aside.

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