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Peanuts and the Good Soldier

Stilwell and the American Experience in China 1911-1945

by Barbara Tuchman
Macmillan, 621 pp., $10.00

In 1927, the province of Shantung was under the control of the warlord Chang Tsung-chang, a ferocious excoolie with a taste for white mercenaries and white women. His forces included a Russian brigade with four armored trains; he himself went to war with a trainload of forty-two concubines, of whom half were also White Russians. Warlord Chang went by the nickname of “Old Eighty-six,” because, so Mrs. Tuchman delicately explains, “the height of a pile of that number of silver dollars reputedly represented the length of the most valued portion of his anatomy in action.”

Joseph W. Stilwell, then a major serving with the US forces stationed, by virtue of the Boxer Protocol, in China, arrived in Chang’s field head-quarters at Hsuchow to observe how his army stood up to the advancing Nationalist forces of the Kuomintang-led Northern Expedition. Chang pulled out, retreating to the north. Stilwell was stranded and forced to head south for the “safety” of the foreign war-ships and international concessions in Shanghai. Mrs. Tuchman tells the story well of his fearful journey by rail—he was on the verge at least once of being lynched as a foreign devil. Safely through the barbed wire of the International Settlement, Stilwell felt like throwing his arms around the first US Marine he saw. Then he sat down and wrote a generally favorable report on the revolutionary Kuomintang forces, who had high morale, did not loot, and were welcomed by the populace. It says much, we are told, for his military objectivity, that he could still do so after his perilous journey.

It is a good yarn, about a good soldier, if one accepts the rather narrow definition of such a person which is implicit in the Stilwell legend—and at no point in her 500 pages of biography does Mrs. Tuchman seek to diminish the legend of irascible, lovable Vinegar Joe. Stilwell was a West Pointer who had no patience with swagger sticks and staff officers, polo or hunting, bridge-playing or the Club. He had no time either for pretenses, whether displayed by his fellow officers in the US army or by the “stuck-up Limeys” with whom he frequently tangled during the war in Asia. He was awkward, sometimes tongue-tied, in the presence of high-ranking brass or politicians—a failing which later made him unable to establish any sort of rapport with President Roosevelt (whom he regarded as devious and slippery, an “Old Softy” who gave in under pressure).

There is a satisfactory counterpoint to Stilwell’s almost misanthropic view of most of his military colleagues, and that is his respect and affection for the common soldier. This contrast makes for even more satisfying reading since his views on the great divide between officers and men applied with special force to the Chinese army under the Kuomintang. “The Chinese soldier,” he wrote, “is excellent material, wasted and betrayed by stupid leadership,” and he further characterized that leadership as consisting of “oily politicians…treacherous quitters, selfish, conscienceless, unprincipled crooks.”

The story of Stilwell’s uphill struggle, as Commander-in-Chief of the China-India-Burma Theater in World War II, to keep the KMT politicians and crooks from wrecking the Chinese army’s contribution to the war effort is well-known. Extracts from the Stilwell Papers for this period were published as long ago as 1948, edited by Theodore White, 1 and Mrs. Tuchman has used much the same material and presented much the same picture of the contest of wits between Stilwell and the President of China, whom he called Peanuts.

Apart from the tale of the Byzantine politics of Chungking, China’s wartime capital, which resulted, in September 1944, in the triumph of Peanuts, when Old Softy capitulated and recalled Stilwell, the other big story is the Burma campaign. First Stilwell salvaged the retreat of 1942, personally leading his own rearguard in a grueling “walkout” through the jungle and over the mountains to the Indian border. (It was an eight-day trek, led by Stilwell at the grim rate of 105 paces to the minute.) Then he rebuilt the Chinese combat force and reinvaded at the end of 1943, struggling all the while with the Hump, the Road, the Gimo, the British, and a growing tendency in Washington to back away from the Burma campaign and to downgrade the whole importance of the China Theater as a seaborne victory against Japan (bypassing the Asiatic mainland) became more likely. It is all interwoven with the equally Byzantine politics of the wartime conferences of Cairo and Teheran and all the others, where the Allies hassled over which part of the globe should next enjoy the privilege of war.

The first half of Mrs. Tuchman’s long book, which covers Stilwell’s earlier career up to his wartime appointment, breaks new biographical ground and is of undoubted value in providing a readable account of this period. As a junior officer with a fluent command of the Chinese language, Stilwell built roads and met warlords in the early 1920s, and as a military attaché in the late 1930s he saw the Japanese rape at firsthand. Although he saw service elsewhere, China, which he first visited briefly on leave during the 1911 revolution, became the dominant concern of his professional life.

Yet when Mrs. Tuchman comes to the period of the Second World War—effectively the last act of Stilwell’s life, since he died in 1946—she adds remarkably little, although at much greater length, to the Stilwell Papers as originally edited by White. The circumstantial detail of international and Chinese wartime politics with which she pads out the story is already familiar, at least on the conventional lines which she follows. In spite of its ambitious title—Stilwell and the American Experience in China—this book is really successful only as a personal biography.

It is Stilwell’s experience in China, not that of the United States, which forms the central theme. There is only an occasional glimmer of understanding that Stilwell the soldier was the instrument of a deliberate and dynamic policy toward China, rather than just the victim of a passive policy which, in the author’s words, failed to “adjust” to changing reality. Mrs. Tuchman perceptively describes the postwar decision by General Marshall to help Chiang Kai-shek move his troops to North China (thereby intervening in the incipient civil war) as “essentially a decision for counter-revolution.” But her general conclusions show little advance on those expressed in the White Paper which Dean Acheson produced in 1949 to justify the American “loss” of China. American intervention was, she explains, a tragic mistake; it would have been better to have accepted Stilwell’s advice that, as he wrote on August 19, 1945, five days after Japan’s surrender, “we ought to get out—now.” It was futile to attempt to sustain the status quo or to delay what Mrs. Tuchman describes as “the cyclical passing of the mandate of heaven”—more usually known these days as the Chinese Revolution.

Exactly why China was so important to the United States never emerges from Mrs. Tuchman’s narrative, although she fully recognizes that it was so. Roosevelt, she writes at one point in discussing the Allied squabbles over Southeast Asia, “was as determined as ever on having China as the fourth cornerstone of the postwar world order.” Elsewhere she suggests that he had the disinterested objective of binding China to the Allied cause so as “to lay the ground for settlement of Sino-Soviet relations and of the Kuomintang-Communist schism, so likely to disturb the world order.” Her analysis of American policy rests exclusively at this high-minded level of concern for the postwar world order, as if such a concept bore no relation to any partisan American view of its own national interest (although she is ready enough to accept that Britain’s opposition to great power status for China was firmly rooted in Churchill’s concern to restore British primacy as a colonial power in postwar Asia).

The dimension that is missing here can easily be supplied from the contemporary documents, including those published by the Department of State. There one can find a clear account of both the economic and political rationale for regarding the western shores of the Pacific as America’s postwar frontier. It was Vice President Wallace who in July, 1944, after returning from a visit to China, urged that “the American businessman of tomorrow” should recognize that “the new frontier extends from Minneapolis…all the way to Central Asia.”2 His view reflected a widely held belief that the high levels of employment, wages, and production which had been achieved during the war could be preserved only by developing a high volume of postwar exports. Japan was guilty not just of crimes against humanity but—and perhaps this was a much greater crime—of seeking to create a “self-sufficient economic bloc” in East and Southeast Asia which would frustrate the legitimate desires of the world and of the United States for what Secretary of State Hull described as “a system of sound international economic relations.”3

This vision of a new world order based upon an ever-expanding American economy, with China, among other nations, playing a key market role, was found in the most surprising quarters, including the pages of Amerasia, the leftist journal of Asian affairs which later became a gold mine for McCarthyite investigators in search of “communist” views that could be attributed to Professor Owen Lattimore and other victims. A whole issue of the magazine was devoted in September, 1944, to the proposition that US aid in the postwar era should be used “to create new and expanding markets, and thus enable the United States to maintain the high levels of production, employment, and national income attained during the war.” China was singled out as a country that would be “readily available to serve as a new economic frontier. 4

The political perspective from which American wartime policy looked forward to a dominant postwar role in the Pacific was also spelled out clearly in the contemporary documents. “Responsibility for future security and order in the Pacific,” stated a State Department memorandum of March, 1944, to Hull, “will fall primarily on the United States.” American objectives would be first “to preserve security and stability” and secondly “to create conditions under which developing alignments of power in the Pacific (in which the Soviet Union and China will figure more and more prominently) may be favorable to our own political and economic interests.”5 There was all the more reason, therefore, for US planners to make sure that Roosevelt was justified in telling Anthony Eden that “China, in any serious conflict of policy with Russia, would undoubtedly line up on our side.”6

Whether Stilwell himself had any coherent understanding of the nature of long-term US interests in China does not emerge from this biography. He spoke of his strong belief in the “decisive strategic importance of China,” but the context was that of the immediate Allied war aims. This belief of his turned out to be mistaken, for from a strictly military point of view the importance of China had by mid-1944 become secondary to the main seaborne effort in which the American Marines fought their way up from the Philippines. Mrs. Tuchman identifies the decision of May 4, 1944, by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to land on the Philippines, Formosa, and the China coast as a decisive move in US strategy. It was on paper, but in fact the success of the Philippines landing had by the end of the year virtually ruled out the need for a China landing.

In April, 1945, after the capture of Okinawa, the plan for a landing on the north China coast was finally shelved. At about the same time, Stilwell made a comment which later achieved notoriety in the days of McCarthy: “Isn’t Manchuria a spectacle…,” he wrote. “It makes me itch to throw down my shovel and get over there and shoulder a rifle with Chu The.” Yet by this time the military significance of the various proposals for American cooperation with the Chinese Communists had disappeared, along with the north China landing, for which the Communists’ support in the areas under their control had been desired.

A number of American officials in China, and especially those who were sent as observers in the DIXIE mission to the Communist capital of Yenan in mid-1944, had been arguing for some time in favor of some form of cooperation with the Communists. The more perceptive among them, including men like John Paton Davies and John Stewart Service, whose careers were later destroyed for this very reason, argued that the inevitable political bankruptcy of the Kuomintang made it necessary to rethink America’s postwar policy in China. But their arguments had a chance of acceptance only on purely military grounds, and thus depended upon the continued existence of a China landing strategy. It is just possible that, as Edgar Snow once suggested, Roosevelt himself had a broader view of this question.7 But in April, 1945, the President died, and it was probably too late anyhow. Two months before, in February, 1945, when the Communists secretly suggested that Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai visit Washington to talk with Roosevelt, their proposal was vetoed by Stilwell’s successor, General Wedemeyer.

It would no doubt add to the Stilwell legend (and such an addition has sometimes been made although not, sensibly, by Mrs. Tuchman) if he too had shared this broader view. But while he showed some occasional curiosity about what made the Chinese Communists a popular force in society, he had no sustained interest in them except as good soldiers.

A good egg, like most reds,” was Stilwell’s comment early in the anti-Japanese war about one of the Red Army commanders, and later on he began to think seriously about enlisting these good eggs on the Allied side. By 1943-44 he was putting forward plans to use the Communist forces either in conjunction with the Nationalist army or (as they themselves would have wanted) under ultimate American command. Indeed one of Stilwell’s final acts before leaving China in September, 1944, was to write to the Communist commander-in-chief Chu The in Yenan expressing his “keen disappointment” not to be associated “with you and the excellent troops you have developed” in operations against Japan.

Mrs. Tuchman makes some interesting comments on this lost opportunity for the United States to switch its support from the Kuomintang counterrevolution in China. It was not necessarily naïve, she argues, to regard the Communists—as did Stilwell and many others—as a progressive variety of “agrarian reformers.” Agrarian reform was after all what they were principally concerned with at the time, and the future course of the revolution would always be peasant-oriented. Nor was their future alignment in international affairs necessarily fixed.

What course Chinese Communism might have taken if an American connection had been brought to bear is a question that lost opportunities have made forever unanswerable. The only certainty is that it could not have been worse.

Or is this conclusion itself little more than an updated version of the “Why we lost China” rationale first put forward by Dean Acheson in the 1949 White Paper? In both versions it is the circumstances and accidents of history that are to blame, not the actors—at least not those in the American cast. If only the Kuomintang had been more efficient, complained Dean Acheson. If only the opportunities had not been lost, suggests Mrs. Tuchman.

But why were they lost? Even if the China landing strategy had been pursued, bringing American troops into physical working contact with the Eighth Route Army, and even if some political links had been made with the Communists, would Washington really have withdrawn its support from the Kuomintang when the struggle between revolution and counterrevolution got seriously under way? Even with Roosevelt still in the White House, and Stilwell still in China, the answer would almost certainly have been no, in view of the postwar objectives of American policy which required an assertive US presence in the whole Pacific area. To withdraw support from Chiang Kai-shek would have been, on the contrary, to adopt a policy of neutrality and nonintervention in the Chinese civil war. One suspects that Stilwell’s advice after the defeat of Japan “to get out—now” could only be offered from the sidelines. If he had still been commander of the US forces in China he would surely have been airlifting Chiang Kai-shek’s troops to the north, however much he might swear at Peanuts for making him do his dirty work.

  1. 1

    Joseph W. Stilwell, The Stilwell Papers, arranged and edited by Theodore H. White (Sloane, 1948).

  2. 2

    Quoted in Gabriel Kolko, The Politics of War (Random House, 1969), p. 253.

  3. 3

    Broadcast of September 12, 1943. Text in K.C. Li, ed., American Diplomacy in the Far East, 1942-43, vol. v (New York: K.C. Li, 1946), p. 689.

  4. 4

    China: A new economic frontier for the U.S.A.?” Amerasia, vol. viii, no. 17, September 22, 1944, p. 259.

  5. 5

    Memorandum by Ballantine, Dep. Director of Office of Far East Affairs, to the Secretary of State, March 10, 1944, in Foreign Relations of the United States, China 1944, pp. 32-33.

  6. 6

    Kolko, Politics of War, p. 219.

  7. 7

    Snow discusses Roosevelt’s attitude in Random Notes on Red China (Harvard, 1957), pp. 125-130.

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