CHINA: Crisis

Joseph Stilwell from TIME cover of November 13 1944

Monday, Nov. 13, 1944
CHINA: Crisis
(See Cover)

Franklin Roosevelt stuffed another cigaret in his long ivory holder. The White House reporters asked: “…Anything you can tell us in the way of background on why it was necessary to call General Stilwell home?” The President flicked ashes from his chalk-striped suit, answered:

It’s a simple fact. General Stilwell has done extremely well. I’m very fond of him personally … You all have your likes and dislikes because you’re all extremely human. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and General Stilwell had had certain fallings out, oh, quite a while ago; and finally the other day, the Generalissimo asked that somebody be sent to replace General Stilwell. And we did it… It’s just one of them things…

The President announced that the resignation of his Ambassador to China, Clarence E. Gauss, had no connection with Stilwell’s recall.

In Chungking, T. V. Soong, Chiang Kai-shek’s brother-in-law and Foreign Minister, issued a written statement: “The recall of General Stilwell was entirely a matter of personality…”

In Minneapolis, Minnesota’s Republican Congressman Walter H. Judd, who had been in China, gave his version of what had happened: one day General Stilwell received orders to deliver an ultimatum from the White House to Chiang Kai-shek. The ultimatum demanded that General Stilwell be made commander of all China’s armies or the U.S. would withdraw its military support from China. No self-respecting head of state could countenance such an ultimatum. The Generalissimo’s patience snapped. Angrily he retorted: Then the U.S. will have to withdraw its support. Said Congressman Judd: It was a diplomatic mistake by the U.S. “Stilwell did not make the mistake. He was merely the goat of personal government in Washington. We had to back down from an impossible position into which we should never have put ourselves.”

Last week tart, taciturn Joseph W. Stilwell arrived in Washington from the Far East. He said nothing. His silence was eloquent. For few Americans knew China so well as General Joseph Stilwell. Few understood so well as he the gravity of the crisis dramatized by his recall—its implications for the future fate of China, the U.S., the world.

China’s Friend. Of all Americans, Joe Stilwell should apparently be persona gratissima to the Chinese. He is a staunch admirer of China, a close friend of her big & little people, a champion of her causes, a student of her culture. He is a rare “old China hand” who knows the language so well that he can think in Chinese—one of that surprisingly large number of Americans who have overcome the barrier of an Asiatic language to become unofficial legates in the high tradition of U.S.-Chinese friendship.

And as Chiang Kai-shek’s first foreign Chief of Staff, Stilwell was the symbol of China’s hope in the abiding aid and friendship of the U.S.

China Student. The career that was to take him to Asia began in 1883. Florida-born, Yonkers-bred Joe Stilwell, at 18, was sent by his doctor-lawyer father to West Point because he was something of an adolescent hellion. Young Stilwell would have chosen Yale. During World War I Lieut. Colonel Stilwell served in France. Back in the U.S. at war’s end, he felt a cold wave of pacifism welling up over the country, asked the Army to send him abroad, far away, anywhere that he might sometimes enjoy an occasional martial mixup. One day in 1920 he turned up in Peiping as a military language student.

Joe Stilwell developed an insatiable curiosity about China and her way of life. As military attache at the U.S. legation in Peiping, his reports were concise, but packed with information. Soon he won the reputation of being an authority on Chinese affairs. He studied in books and at first hand. His lean, leathery figure, bedroll and knapsack slung over his shoulder, became a familiar one, tramping across China’s flat, dusty, northern countryside. He liked to mingle with the chiupa, the rugged riflemen who, since the Manchu dynasty was overthrown (1911), have borne the burden of their nation’s endless civil wars.

Between service stretches in China, Joe Stilwell taught infantry tactics back in the U.S. He also raised a family—three daughters, two sons. But Joe Stilwell, honest, good-humored scholar, teacher and family man, was also known as an acidulous observer of the world of men. For his avuncular benignity, he was called “Uncle Joe.” For his biting comments on dopes and humbugs, he was nicknamed “Vinegar.”

In China, Stilwell developed one deep conviction that was also a deep compliment to the Chinese nation: he believed that the straw-sandaled, underfed Chinese soldier, properly equipped, trained and led, was the fighting equal of any other nation’s soldier. He was sure that he could create a striking force with Chinese manpower and U.S. weapons that would drive the Japanese from China. After Pearl Harbor, he got the beginning of a slim chance to test this belief.

China’s Soldier. In March 1942, General Stilwell went back to China, plunged immediately into the hopeless task of holding Burma against the Japs. His famed retreat across Burma (“I say we took a hell of a beating”) did not shake his faith in the Chinese soldier. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek supported Stilwell, at first. So did his great & good friend, U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall.

But on all sides, frustrations presently piled up. All of Joe Stilwell’s vinegar personality could not bite a way through the conflicting confusions of U.S. foreign policy, Chinese domestic policy and Britain’s Asiatic aims.

In his campaign to reopen a road to China through northern Burma, “Vinegar Joe,” at 59, proved himself a crack field commander, a masterly tactician—and also a driving, red-tape-be-damned anti-diplomat. His men, Chinese and American, saw him frequently from their jungle foxholes. He jeeped across the tortuous terrain indefatigably, injected his high-octane personality into every advance.

But Joe Stilwell could not win the kind of cooperation he needed in high places. He did not get along well with the British: Churchill’s policy in the Far East was consistently at variance with U.S. policy. He could not get enough supplies for the Chinese. The trickle of supplies that used to be hauled agonizingly over the Burma Road became a dribble when it had to be flown over the Himalayan “hump.” It is still a dribble. The Chinese, exhausted by seven years of almost singlehanded war against Japan, were reluctant to give General Stilwell the troops he wanted for the Burma offensive; the Japs might suddenly crack down on them in earnest. When the Japs began the drive that last week seemed on the verge of cutting China in two, Chiang Kai-shek’s Government might well have felt that its go-slow policy was justified.

Joseph Stilwell with Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiange in 1944

China’s Puzzles. And there was the further complication of Washington’s peripatetic global emissaries whose powers, purposes and accreditation were often more baffling than any Chinese puzzle. There was Vice President Henry Wallace. He cocked a nutritional eye at China’s permanently underfed people, bent an eager ear to gossip of Chungking’s and Chiang’s political instability, buzzed back to Washington to pour his frightening reports into the Presidential ear. Then there were President Roosevelt’s personal representatives, Donald Nelson, all new to China and China to him, and Major General Patrick Hurley. Worldly, well-tailored Pat Hurley stopped off in Moscow to garner Premier Molotov‘s assurances that Russia has no designs on China, stopped off in Chungking to lecture Chiang Kai-shek on the urgent need to cooperate with Russia and the Chinese Communists. The Generalissimo, however, believed that his Government’s most urgent need was more supplies.

Instead of sending supplies, Washington proposed that General Stilwell be given command of all Chinese forces. The White House believed that the Nationalist Government could do a lot more in the fight against Japan by pressing domestic reforms and by coming to terms with the Chinese Communist Government at Yenan.

Nobody ever urged the Chinese Communists to come to terms with Chungking.

China’s Patience. But, patiently, the Generalissimo continued to listen. He had learned patience in a stern school — 33 years of bloody civil and foreign wars, the pangs of a nation that had not yet forged its unity, won its independence or completed a revolution from feudalism.

He had swallowed his pride in dealings with the Americans before. He had agreed to let General Stilwell supervise the distribution of U.S. Lend-Lease in China.

Such a condition had been imposed on no other head of a foreign state. The implication was that Chiang Kai-shek could not be trusted with Lend-Lease.

But only once is he known to have complained bitterly to a colleague: “The Americans want me to be a slave. I don’t mind being a slave for the sake of victory, but” — and his voice broke with anger and injury — “they treat me as if I were a thief!”

With most of the Washington suggestions, the Generalissimo, however, reluctantly, agreed. He had already accepted the proposal that General Stilwell be given tactical command of China’s armies. Then, seemingly in the discussion over the exact scope of Stilwell’s command, he was pushed too far. Perhaps, as some reports maintained, Washington at last insisted on bringing the Chinese Communist armies into the new setup. Allegedly, the Chinese Communists, who have adamantly held out against Chiang’s control, were willing to serve under an American general and thereby acquire American arms.

Chiang might well have felt that Washington did not understand the danger to Nationalist China in such an arrangement.

But, like Washington, General Stilwell had long believed that China’s war effort would be mightily reinforced by bringing the Chinese Communist armies into the war against Japan. Did he urge it with too much vinegar? Be that as it may, on Oct. 19 Joe Stilwell received his recall from Washington.

Next day, over a formal cup of tea, he bade farewell to the Generalissimo. He declined the offer of a high Chinese decoration. He attended a final cocktail party with his staff, packed his dumbbells, captured samurai sword and traveling gear.

Then he emplaned for the U.S. in the silver-painted transport known as “Uncle Joe’s Chariot.” Few men had been stouter friends of China.

General Stilwell’s recall clumsily terminated an embarrassing episode — but not the basic situation from which it resulted.

Stripped to the bare facts, that situation was that Chungking, a dictatorship ruling high-handedly in order to safeguard the last vestiges of democratic principles in China, was engaged in an undeclared civil war with Yenan, a dictatorship whose purpose was the spread of totalitarian Communism in China. At the same time Chungking was locked in a life and death struggle with Japan.

China’s Critics. As usual Chungking, not the U.S. or Yenan, was criticized for the Stilwell incident. Typical of the tone long taken by leftists and echoed by liberals was a dispatch cleared by Washington military censors and written by New York Timesman Brooks Atkinson, just back from Chungking:

The decision to relieve General Stilwell represents the political triumph of a moribund, anti-democratic regime that is more concerned with maintaining its political supremacy than in driving the Japanese out of China. America is now committed… to support a regime that has become increasingly unpopular and distrusted in China, that maintains three secret police services and concentration camps for political prisoners, that stifles free speech and resists democratic forces…
The Chinese Communists… have good armies that are now fighting guerrilla warfare against the Japanese in North China… The Generalissimo regards these armies as the chief threat to his supremacy… has made no sincere attempt to arrange at least a truce with them for the duration of the war… No diplomatic genius could have overcome the Generalissimo’s basic unwillingness to risk his armies in battle with the Japanese…

What kind of a government was the Communist Government of Yenan, which the White House and General Stilwell had insisted that Generalissimo Chiang must cooperate with?

Chinese Communists and their sympathizers—notably Edgar Snow (Red Star Over China, The Battle for Asia) and Agnes Smedley, daughter of a U.S. coal miner and author of China’s Red Army Marches and Battle Hymn of China, were eloquent about Yenan. Other touring U.S. correspondents have lauded Yenan’s agrarian reforms, labor unions, well-fed troops, efficient guerrilla organization. They have never reported Yenan’s rigorous press censorship (much stricter than Chungking’s), its iron party discipline, “traitors’ [concentration] camps,” secret police, other totalitarian features.

Agnes Smedley in Guomindang uniform 1939 by Aino Taylor from the Agnes Smedley Collection

The Wild Artichoke. But a new glimpse of Yenan was revealed in four articles entitled Wild Artichoke. Written by Wang Shih-wei, the articles appeared in Yenan’s Emancipation Daily. The author was the Chinese translator of Eugene O’Neill, a scholar of the Yenan Central Research Institute, for 16 years a member of the Communist Party. Wild Artichoke, recently smuggled out of Communist China, was written for a campaign of Communist self-criticism, initiated by the head of the Chinese Communist Government, Mao Tse-tung.

Wrote Wang of life in Yenan:

Party bosses showed neither “love nor warmth” for the rank and file; in fact, they ignored the people’s welfare, neglected even the sick “who cannot obtain a mouthful of soup.” The people voiced their dissatisfaction in “hushed murmurs in the dark of night.” There were “three classes of uniform and five classes of food… As for those who advance the fact that distinction of rank exists in the Soviet Union as a legitimate reason for our present practice, well, excuse my bluntness, but I would advise those ‘high priests’ to shut their mouths.”
Among the youths, once burning with zeal for the revolution, there was disillusionment. “Young students are given two meals of rice gruel a day. When asked whether they have eaten enough, they are required to reply with a prescribed model phrase: ‘We are well-fed!'” Said Wang: “Such conditions cause uneasiness… I await comments.”

They were not long in coming. Shortly after writing Wild Artichoke, Wang Shih-wei was expelled from the Anti-Japanese Writers League, was branded a Trotskyite, charged with undermining the Communist Party. Then he disappeared.

China’s Sorrow. In the first year (1937-38) of the common resistance against Japan, there was an uneasy truce between Yenan and Chungking. But for the past six years an undeclared civil war has raged across North China. Each side has sought to conceal the full details of the bloody fratricide, for it does not make good reading in the chronicle of China’s war effort. It has involved 15-day battles, upwards of 40,000 troops in a single action, systematic campaigns of extermination, terror and counter-terror.

In this struggle, the Communists have won a notable victory, not only because of their aggressive policies, but because the Nationalist Government has refrained from throwing its full strength against them during the war against Japan. The Communists now claim control over 80,000,000 Chinese, domination of much of occupied China (Hopei, Shantung, Kiangsu, Anhwei, Chekiang). Their infiltration of these areas has been achieved by driving out not Japs but Chungking’s guerrillas and entire administration.

Chungking’s military intelligence claims to have captured many Communist High Command directives to its military and political workers. One was Yenan’s plan for the capture of political power in northern Kiangsu—a Chungking area:

First, create unrest in the region and unite the small local Communist bands into large units. Through local unrest, we can go forward with our regional work, start opposition to the Nationalist Government, store up grain and accumulate cash by taxation. Second,… sudden attacks… selecting the lightly defended areas held by the Nationalist troops as our targets… Third,… encirclement and coup d’etat. We shall occupy the whole of northern Kiangsu with all forces at our command.

Certainly it is true, as General Stilwell and others have complained, that Chiang Kai-shek has kept Chungking armies blockading Yenan. But blockading is better than open civil war. For Yenan is also a war front. If Chiang relaxed the blockade, perhaps all of China would ultimately be lost to the democratic cause.

Catastrophe. In U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic, Walter Lippmann has pointed out that there are two powers for which the U.S. must always go to war when their existence is threatened. One is Britain. The other is China. For 100 years the chief object of U.S. Far Eastern policy has been to keep aggressors from taking over China. It is still the chief object of U.S. Far Eastern policy.

No one would deny that Franklin Roosevelt, following the traditional path of U.S. policy in the Far East, has consistently wanted, if not consistently worked for, a strong, independent, democratic China. But the Stilwell incident was a blunder of the first magnitude.

If the rift in U.S.-Chinese relations were not quickly repaired, both China and the U.S. would be the losers. For China, the loss might be great. For the U.S. it might be catastrophic. For if Chiang Kai-shek were compelled to collaborate with Yenan on Yenan’s terms, or if he were forced to lift his military blockade of the Chinese Communist area, a Communist China might soon replace Chungking. And unlike Chungking, a Communist China (with its 450 million people) would turn to Russia (with its 200 million people) rather than to the U.S. (with its 130 million) as an international collaborator.

cover of TIME magazine in November 13 1944


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