Books China History

Review of “Stilwell and the American Expeirence in China, 1911-1945,” by Barbara Tuchman and “The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China” by Jay Taylor

I was speaking with a friend, and noted that I had now read biographies of many of the Communist leaders of China: Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai, Zhao Ziyang, and the rest, who by their actions also highlighted the personalities of men like Mao Zedong and Lin Biao. Who should I learn about next?

“Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT,” he said.

So here are two overlapping stories of the KMT and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek: Stillwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945 and The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China. Chiang, of course, was the leader in the KMT who lead the Republic of China both on the mainland and Taiwan (and for a very short period, both). Stilwell was the Chinese-speaking American general, probably the best we had going into World War I, who was picked by Marshall to turn the Chinese army into a force that could expel the Japanese from the mainland of Asia. Stillwell and Chiang were allies against Japan. They shared a deep distrust of the British. And, disastrously, they despised each other.

Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945 is the third book by Barbara Tuchman I have read, after Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour and Notes from China. Stilwell is a professional biography of Joseph Warren Stilwell (1883-1946), Chief of Staff of Chiang Kai-shek. Through Stilwell, Tuchman gives a history of the Republic of China, from its birth in the revolution of 1911 to shortly before the general collapse of 1949 (a collapse which left it in control of only one province, Taiwan))

In the Philippines, Stilwell conducted counter-insurgency operations.
In the first World War, Joseph Stilwell worked under John Pershing to create America’s 3GW force in Europe. Stilwell served as an American liaison officer to China’s Beiyang (Warlord) Government.

One of the tragedies of the books is that Joseph Stilwell and Chiang Kai-shek worked at cross purposes. Stilwell was interested in defeating Japan. Chiang believed that China was too weak to defeat Japan, and therefore should hang back while Americans would do the fighting. Stilwell was interested in defeating America’s enemies, and so saw the Communists as potential allies. Chiang was interested in defeating the enemies of the Chinese Party-State, and so saw the Communists as the prime enemies.

This must be emphasized: Stilwell was perhaps the best offensive thinker to be an American General in history. In the largest ever wargames conducted in the United States, Stilwell, as the “red” team invading from Mexico, rapidly seized the south-west and was prepared to march on the capital. Likewise, Chiang was perhaps the best defensive thinking to be a Chinese General in centuries. Just as Stilwell emphasized rapid transits, mission-based orders, cutting enemy communications, and taking risks, Chiang emphasized multiple redundant layers of protection, clear lines of escape, atttrition-based fronts that played to his advantages, and so on.

When it became clear that Chiang had no intention of launching an offensive against the Guandong Army, Stilwell realized that if the Soviet Union did not intervene, an unimaginably bloody American invasion of the Japanese Home Islands would simply be followed up with an Imperial retreat to East China, and the hellish prospect of a land-war in Asia against the Japanese. To Chiang, this was fine: the “Imperial” overseas powers would wear each other down, and a Chinese force would pick up the pieces. To America, this was completely unacceptable. From then on, American planners were generally indifferent between the KMT and its mini-me cousin, the Chinese Communist Party.

During the war, Chiang remarks that the Party-State could survive even if it held only four provinces. Indeed, had that happened, China’s history may have been happier. Chiang’s weakness meant that his Whampoa Clique could not hold China, and so the Party-State had to rely on local warlords. After the collapse to Taiwan, the Party-State reformed itself, the Chiang Clique was firmly in control, and the Republic of China Military Academy was formed to crate the next generation of leaders. Strikingly, Chiang seems to have realized that control over a large country did not suit his retinue of followers: he, Zhou, and Mao repeatedly turned down Soviet offers to partition the country into a Communist “Red” China and a KMT Congress-style China.

These are long books, but excellent for understanding the dynamics of china immediately before Mao became an Emperor. Both the biographies of Chiang Kai-Shek and Joseph Stilwell are must reads

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6 thoughts on “Review of “Stilwell and the American Expeirence in China, 1911-1945,” by Barbara Tuchman and “The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China” by Jay Taylor
  1. Oo! The biography of Madame Chiang would fit everything very nicely — especially as her brother was Chiang’s mainland-era Foreign Minister, one sister married Sun Yatsen (and later was honorary President of the People’s Republic of China), and other married a Shanghai tycoon!

    But is she really a last Empress? Wouldn’t that have been Madame Mao?

  2. True. While there are a number of books, including one of interviews with her done immediately before her arrest, as of now the books do not appear to be particularly kind. Unsure which one has the more hostile… the US-written “The White-Boned Demon” [1] or the Chinese written “The Trial of the Lin Biao and Jiang Qing Counter-Revolutionary Cliques” [2] !


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