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Stilwell and the American Experience in…

Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45

by Barbara W. Tuchman

Other authors: John K. Fairbank (Introduction)

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The deconstructionists do have a point; every historian is influenced by the times they live in, as well as the times they are writing about. Stilwell and the American Experience in China is copyright 1970. Barbara Tuchman’s book seemed to confirm the mood of the times; historical inevitability dictated that the East would be Red, and eventually everywhere else would be Red too, and we might as well get used to the idea and try to make accommodations with the winning side.

As it happens, it didn’t turn out that way. In fact, Stilwell doesn’t really have that much to say about the Chinese communists. I suspect some of the laudatory reviews from the contemporary Left came from people who just used the index to see what Tuchman had to say about Chiang Kai-Shek, Chou En-Lai, and Mao Tse-Tung (that was the way they were spelled then) and based their comments accordingly. In fact Tuchman is pretty circumspect, at worst viewing the Reds through glasses that have only the slightest rose tint. Conventional wisdom on the Left is that the communists instituted agrarian reform, set up schools and hospitals for the peasants, banished landlords, fought the Japanese, and generally ushered in the Golden Age in the parts of China they controlled; in fact, all they really did was the same thing the Kuomintang did – take foreign military aid and stash it away waiting for the dramatic showdown with the real enemy. (Tuchman doesn’t come out and say so bluntly, but does mention that Soviet advisers to the Chinese communists were just as frustrated as the American advisers to the KMT over their inability to get their clients to fight the Japanese rather than each other).

On the surface, Joseph Stilwell must have seemed the ideal choice for command in the CBI – old China hand, fluent in Mandarin, imbued with sympathy for ordinary Chinese. In fact, he wasn’t; what little tact he had quickly evaporated in the jungles. He followed orders, went where he was told, and did his level best at doing what he was supposed to do, but one of the spit-and-polish generals he disdained might have been a better choice. One of Tuchman’s themes is that it couldn’t have come out differently no matter who was in command – the CBI was the WWII equivalent of the La Brea Tar Pits and anyone sent there was doomed to be engulfed – but it might have been better to send someone less militarily talented.

That, of course, raises another question – just how militarily talented was Stilwell? His WWI experience was mostly staff work – again he was doomed to the rear by language fluency. He’d performed well in maneuvers during the buildup to WWII, and received praise from George Marshall. His big combat accomplishments, though, were the retreat from Burma in 1942 and the recapture Myitkyina in 1944. Both of these get mixed reviews. During the retreat, he led his staff and various hangers-on out through some of the most unpleasant country in the world without losing anybody, even though he could have flown out much earlier. Stunt or heroic leadership? Hard to say; critics argued that no matter how dramatic it is, a theater commander is not supposed to be out of contact on a cross-country march; the flip side is a demonstration of a commander’s willingness to share burdens with the troops – Stilwell was 59 at the time, and lost 25 pounds from an already spare frame. I’m inclined to side with Stilwell; he never intended an overland march but kept trying to get to an airfield or railhead until there were no other choices. It’s interesting – and amusing – to speculate on what Douglas MacArthur would have done in similar circumstances.

The battle for Myitkyina is a little more troubling, and Tuchman is less laudatory. Stilwell pounded his only American troops, the 5307th Composite Unit (aka Merrill’s Marauders) into the ground. The Marauders did smash up a Japanese division pretty thoroughly, and they did take Myitkyina airstrip (they pretty much had to, because that was the only way to get resupplied) but at a horrendous cost. Even here Tuchman apologizes for Stilwell; his tight-fisted policy on decorations is explained by saying that he felt that American troops should be motivated by military honor, not by reward (every surviving Marauder did eventually get a Bronze Star, unique for an American unit), and Tuchman goes so far as to disrespect the Marauders a little, suggesting that they were recruited from disgruntled soldiers whose commanders were anxious to get rid of them and that’s why they complained about Stilwell so much. This time I’m a little less sympathetic; I think Tuchman does analyze Stilwell’s overall problem correctly. No matter how much evidence he received to the contrary, he always thought there was some magic formula to make Chiang Kai-Shek fight the Japanese and kept searching for it; maybe if he diddled with Lend-Lease, maybe if he threatened, maybe if he cajoled, maybe if he gave Chennault the supply priority he demanded, maybe if he opened the Ledo Road. Maybe if he took Myitkyina. If, of course, the capture of Myitkyina had convinced CKS to cooperate fully – or even slightly – the Marauder’s sacrifice might have been worth it – but Stilwell should have known by now it wouldn’t.

Eventually it all became anticlimactic. Stilwell was relieved on Chiang’s insistence. After some bouncing around he eventually received command of 10th Army, scheduled to go into Kyushu – other events intervened. He then more or less just faded away after that – and without making any speeches about it or getting any parades, either – dying of metastatic stomach cancer in 1946, still on active duty. His last decoration, and as far as Tuchman knows the only one he personally requested, was the Combat Infantry Badge, one of only three officers who ever received it while a general.

Stilwell’s star dimmed a little after the war; he was one of many blamed for having “lost” China, apparently because of his hostility to Chiang rather than any displayed fondness for Mao. While the McCarthy Era has been oversold as the American equivalent of the rise of the Third Reich, it is well to remember that there were people just as crazy as any Birthers or Truthers; General Claire Chennault testified before Congress in 1952 that Stilwell had planned to seize control of the 10th Army while on the way to invade Japan, divert it south to the China coast, distribute arms and equipment to waiting communists, and march on Shanghai. Nobody seems to have told Chennault he had no sense of decency, either.

Tuchman is definitely warm to her subject, despite the fact that their political views were probably opposite. She plays with “what if” a little, but only by suggestion (and, in fact, all the possibilities were explored, at least cursorily, during the war). What if the US had let the Japanese have a free hand in China in 1937? What if the US had just abandoned China during the war? What if the US had shifted support to the Communists rather than the KMT? I can see problems and possibilities with all these courses; it’s disappointing that Tuchman doesn’t speculate more.

All of Tuchman’s books are well worth reading. Stilwell does get bogged down in the middle when there’s a lot of politics and not much action; of course, that’s sort of the story of the CBI theater. There are maps; unfortunately my edition is a mass-market paperback and they’re hard to read; I’m sure they would have been better in a larger format and on coated paper. The reform of official Chinese romanization means that none of the personal or geographic names used by Tuchman are still spelled that way; this is a handicap, since there are necessarily a lot of them. The index is excellent, and the bibliography is extensive; there are endnotes, but they are not numbered in the text. There are more recent works on the CBI but nothing that I’ve read fundamentally changes anything Tuchman says; thus this is still an excellent history. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 19, 2017 |
interviews supplemented by photos and a personal visit by the author to Guadalcanal create a good memoir for the coastwatchers ( )
  jamespurcell | May 13, 2017 |
This is a classic work that has become definitive about the experience of Joseph Stilwell in China during World War II. Tuchman uses his experience as a window to view US-China relations. For Tuchman, Stilwell is a tragic hero. He was a rising star with the War Department, and particularly George Marshall, but was denied command in North Africa at the start of the war because he was the best man to serve as Chiang Kai-shek's Chief of Staff. He went reluctantly but with determination to help China in the fight. He slowly became disillusioned with both Chiang Kai-shek and the War Department. Chiang was completely unwilling to fight the Japanese and the War Department continually withdrew supplies promised to China to other theaters of war. So Stilwell got nothing but moral support from Washington and not even that from Chiang.

His main goal was to reopen the Burma Road to give a land supply route to China. Towards the end of the war, he began a campaign to do that. He was successful in his offensive, but was recalled to Washington, at Chiang's insistence, before finishing the job. His success to that point allowed the air supply of China a much easier route than directly over "the Hump".

Tuchman's view of Stilwell is extremely sympathetic. She acknowledges that he lacked tact, but gives him the benefit of the doubt in all other areas. She puts his sense of duty and honor above all else. For example, when he performs poorly in a meeting with Roosevelt, she suggests that he refused to self-promote. She routinely comments on how he accomplished so much with so little, particularly in regards to the Burma campaign. She also credits him with understanding the situation in China better than most at the time. His predictions of Chiang's collapse would soon be proven out, although he would not live to see it.

She concludes that Stilwell was fighting a war to modernize the Chinese military when the Chinese didn't want it. Much like the US attempt to modernize China was doomed to failure without strong Chinese support, Stilwell's agenda could gain no traction if it was imposed from the outside.

This is a great book. It is easy to read and you won't find more information on Stilwell and China anywhere. Take her depiction of Stilwell with a grain of salt, but otherwise this is a must read for US-China historians or historians of the Pacific War. Tuchman's writing style is to smooth that it will appeal to a lot of non-historians as well. ( )
1 vote Scapegoats | Oct 19, 2014 |
One of my favourite Tuchman books. I have a prejudice against "Vinegar Joe", caused by an early read of "Defeat into Victory", by William Slim, who rose to being the commander of the British XIV Army on the Burma Front. Stilwell's operatic style, and the real failure to obtain any useful result from goading the Nationalist Chinese Army seem to bear this out. The Indian army had its considerable success in defending India arising from a long relationship and interweaving of British culture into the Indian Army. Stilwell got very little mileage out of his missionary from the top down methods. Tuchman does come to see this, and how little the efforts of American foreign relations were having on the unfolding of Chinese history in the first half of the twentieth century.
The Chinese were not galvanized into action, and didn't share America's goals for them anyway. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Dec 4, 2013 |
Immovable force meets immovable object as Chaing Kai-shek and General George Stilwell struggle over American policy to develop a sustainable Chinese Nationalist army. Baraba Tuchman has explained in her lucid prose style a vitally important piece of modern history which led directly to the way modern China has developed and maintained its relationships with the west. In her introduction she apologises to the Chinese people for the way their leadership appears, pointing out this was a particularly low point.

Nobody really comes out well except George Sitwell, an irascible, upright person who obviously had the best interests of China at heart but was unable to carry with him either the American administration nor the wily Chiang. ( )
1 vote broughtonhouse | Mar 15, 2011 |
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Barbara W. Tuchmanprimary authorall editionscalculated
Fairbank, John K.Introductionsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0802138527, Paperback)

Barbara W. Tuchman won the Pulitzer Prize for Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45 in 1972. She uses the life of Joseph Stilwell, the military attache to China in 1935-39 and commander of United States forces and allied chief of staff to Chiang Kai-shek in 1942-44, to explore the history of China from the revolution of 1911 to the turmoil of World War II, when China's Nationalist government faced attack from Japanese invaders and Communist insurgents. Her story is an account of both American relations with China and the experiences of one of our men on the ground. In the cantankerous but level-headed "Vinegar Joe," Tuchman found a subject who allowed her to perform, in the words of The National Review, "one of the historian's most envied magic acts: conjoining a fine biography of a man with a fascinating epic story."

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:45 -0400)

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Presents an examination of the life of General Joseph Stilwell, the Army officer in charge of U.S. affairs in China during World War II, and provides information on his role in the military from 1935 to 1944 as well as the larger scope of American relations with China from 1911-1945. Includes bibliography, end notes, and index.… (more)

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