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…

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