Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45
I had previously read about half of two books by Tuchman – A Distant Mirror and The March of Folly. I had heard the name of this book but did not realize it was by Tuchman, when I found it on the shelf at a vacation rental house. During the vacation I read about half of it and was compelled to get a copy from the library when I returned home.
Stilwell was sent to West Point as his father’s effort to counter a late-blooming streak of wildness in young Joe. He thrived, found a facility with languages and after graduation was sent to France in WW I before the U.S. entered the war, as an observer in the trenches and studying at the French military institute. When the U.S. entered the war, Stilwell performed successfully as a field commander. After the war, went to China several times starting in 1921. He learned Chinese, and was a military attaché to the Nationalist government. He had an intense focus on mobile tactics and actually knowing what has happening on the ground. Between the wars he was chosen by General George Marshall to run training on tactics for the American officer corps. When in China he travelled alone on foot for journeys of over a hundred miles to get a feel for the land.
Chiang Kai-Shek (CKS): leader of the Kuomintang (generally referred to in the U.S. as the Chinese Nationalists.) The Kuomintang was an essentially dictatorial, corrupt political party, more focused on internal enemies – first various Chinese warlords, latterly the Chinese Communists – than in fighting the Japanese. Stilwell complained in his diaries that we were working with a regime which seemed as foreign to U.S. ideals as the Fascists of Europe. Following Chinese political and military tradition, CKS was not interested in attacking the Japanese, preferring to retreat indefinitely.
General Claire Chennault: an American military adventurer, leader of the flying Tigers, a group of American pilots fighting in China against the Japanese. They were quite successful tactically, but Chennault had an inflated view of the ability of pure air power to defeat the Japanese. These views were shown false when, as Stilwell noted, an air force isn’t much use without someone to protect their air fields. When the Flying Tigers became a significant threat to Japanese ground forces, the Japanese attacked and captured their air bases. The doctrine of pure air power was also argued by the U.S. General Staff in Europe. Chennault was perfectly willing to promise results to CKS to enhance his position; CKS was perfectly happy to believe Chennault in order to the status and prestige of having an air force in China.
The Chinese Communists: led by Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai. They took the novel (for China) approach of providing their own supplies for the Army (via their own fields and workshops) instead of stealing from the peasants, and fighting instead of supporting the landlord class. The result was an effective fighting force with popular support, and a competitor for power with the Kuomintang.
Japan invaded China in the 1930s, and the U.S. supported the Kuomintang with Lend-Lease supplies to fight the Japanese. Stilwell was in China and Burma as liaison between the United States and Chiang Kai-Shek when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor followed by Singapore, the Philippines, French Indochina and Burma. He led an escape by his headquarters staff and other American and Chinese soldiers through the nearly impassable Naga Hills to India. All 140 men under his leadership made it through under a disciplined forced march at a regulation 105 steps per minute. He remained as liaison to CKS and was in charge of the Lend-Lease supplies being flown over the Hump (the Himalayas) from India into China. He was also in charge of opening the Burma Road to get land supplies into China. Stilwell believed that Chinese troops, properly trained, equipped, and led could beat the Japanese. He trained Chinese troops who were sent out to India into two divisions, and then led an attack back through the Naga Hills (dismissed as impossible by the both the Japanese and British general staffs) to retake northern Burma. Near the end of the war, after repeated efforts to get the Chinese Nationalists to commit troops to fighting the Japanese in China, the American General Staff presented CKS with an ultimatum – to install Stilwell as commander of all forces in China, both American and Chinese. The loss of face implied by this demand forced CKS to reject it and counter with a demand for recall of Stilwell from China. Stilwell returned home and after a few other commands in the Pacific died in San Francisco in 1946.
Interaction between Stilwell and CKS
CKS repeatedly promised to commit troops to fight the Japanese, but these promises followed Chinese cultural tradition that those promises didn’t really mean anything. Stilwell was aware of this cultural difference but still pushed and hoped he would finally get the troops. In the event, Stilwell got two divisions worth, but he had plans for a Chinese army of 90 divisions to be fielded against the Japanese.
The Final Result
Stilwell never had more than three Chinese divisions under his command. He trained them to a level where they were able to defeat the Japanese forces in Burma. But CKS never really cared about Burma or any other offensive campaign against the Japanese. The troops and the American supplies were only a source of prestige and defense against internal enemies. American headquarters under General Marshal recognized the difficulties of dealing with the Chinese. But there was also value in maintaining the potential threat in China, tying down as many as a million Japanese troops, some of whom might have otherwise been fighting the U.S. in the Pacific. U.S. military and State department observers estimated that CKS and the Kuomintang would only survive the end of the war and U.S. support by six months. When war against the Japanese ended, the U.S. continued to support CKS against the Communists, but eventually the Kuomintang had to flee to Formosa. The “China Lobby” in the U.S. blamed the fall of China on Communist sympathizers in the U.S., not the inherent corrupt, fascist nature of the Kuomintang.
The American political environment
The U.S. public viewed China as proto-democratic, a potential market for our goods, and receptive to Christianity – a view propagated by the American missionary movement at home, raising money for missionaries in China. It seems that we almost viewed China as a huge religious market as well as a commercial market. In the U.S. an important shaper of opinion was Henry Luce, founder of Time and born in China of missionary parents. After the fall of the Kuomintang, the debate over “who lost China” was one of the threads that led to the anti-Communist hysteria of the McCarthy period.
Parallels to Other U.S. Involvements
The book was published in 1970. The publication year, along with other writings by Tuchman, suggests parallels to Vietnam then, and reading it now, to Iraq and even more to Afghanistan/Pakistan. The following are my thought on the parallels.
As a “status quo power” (Tuchman’s term), the U.S. has an attachment to supporting a single central government. Our founding mythology inclines us to look for George Washington figures in other countries – a strong, charismatic, honest figure leading a group fighting for their country. We cast their opposition in the role of the oppressor. In Afghanistan, we know that Karzai is the head of a central government that does not represent all the people (certainly not the non-Pashtun north.) The Taliban, while oppressive, has a certain home-grown appeal. To the extent that they are not corrupt (made problematic by their involvement in the drug trade), they appeal to the puritan Muslim idealism of the young Talibs (students) who originally formed the Taliban.
In Pakistan, the Bush administration insisted that President Musharraf was a good partner to achieve our results there – never mind that his clear strongman non-democratic role. Pakistan is much more complicated than a country yearning to be a democracy – like China, the cultural forces are old and complicated. They see Afghanistan as part of their natural region of influence, which is partly a natural result of the large Pashtun population living on both sides of the Afghan border.
We also place a high faith in our ability to achieve results by air power. While we do not claim that we can “win” anything with Predator strikes, our tendency to believe in purely technological solutions echoes Chennault in China and some commanders in Vietnam.
While reading the book I had repeated thoughts of “why are we in Asia?” The U.S. has a pattern of getting involved in protracted military situations where we have not defined our specific national interest; where the whole of the American body polity have not understood the culture we are dealing with and instead project our political images onto the other country; latch onto a leader or regime as our chosen vehicle; expect that we can win quickly by the application of equipment and technology; and never deal with the real political actors to achieve a narrow result in our national interest. Instead we have an idealistic goal that in a short amount of time the target country will be transformed into a unified western democratic nation-state.
I don’t have a proposed solution to Afghanistan/Pakistan. I expect that we will continue to muddle on, and it will not turn out well because it can’t given our time horizon. Short of a world where we’re trying to make every country into a liberal democracy (which would require a very different foreign policy than we have now), I think our only essential national interest in Afghanistan/Pakistan is that it not be a base for Al Qaeda training camps, and whatever else happens there is a problem that they have to solve themselves.