Joseph Stilwell - Historical Viewpoints

Historical Viewpoints

In her book Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45, Barbara Tuchman wrote Stilwell was sacrificed as a political expedient due to his inability to get along with his allies in the theater. Stilwell's removal was certainly a result of substantial political pressure by Chiang through diplomatic means and using influential American friends who supported Chiang's government. One such group, informally called the "China Lobby", included Time publisher Henry Luce and his wife Clare Boothe Luce as well as J. Edgar Hoover.

Some historians, such as David Halberstam in his final book, The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, have theorized Roosevelt was concerned Chiang would sign a separate peace with Japan, which would free many Japanese divisions to fight elsewhere, and Roosevelt wanted to placate Chiang. The power struggle over the China Theater that emerged between Stilwell, Chennault, and Chiang reflected the American political divisions of the time.

A very different interpretation of events suggests that Stilwell, pressing for his full command of all Chinese forces, had made diplomatic inroads with the Chinese Communist Red Army commanded by Mao Zedong. He bypassed his theater commander Chiang Kai-Shek and had gotten Mao to agree to follow an American commander. His confrontational approach in the power struggle with Chiang ultimately led to Chiang's determination to have Stilwell recalled to the United States.

Stilwell, a "soldier's soldier", was nonetheless an old-school American infantry officer unable to appreciate the creative developments in warfare brought about by World War II—including strategic air power and the use of highly trained infantrymen as jungle guerrilla fighters. His disagreements with the equally acerbic Gen. Claire L. Chennault came about not only because Chennault over-valued the effectiveness of air power against massed ground troops—a fact proven by the fall of the 14th Air Force bases in eastern China (Hengyang, Kweilin, etc.) in the Japanese eastern China offensive of 1944—but because Stilwell mistakenly believed air power's sole use lay in support for ground troops. Stilwell, in fact, clashed with almost every other officer in the theatre with novel ideas, including Orde Wingate, who led the Chindits, and Col. Charles Hunter, officer in charge of Merrill's Marauders. Stilwell could neither appreciate the toll constant jungle warfare took on even the most highly trained troops, nor the incapacity of lightly armed, fast-moving jungle guerrilla forces to dislodge heavily armed regular infantry supported by artillery. Accordingly, Stilwell abused both Chindits and Marauders, and earned the contempt of both units and their commanders.

In other respects, however, Stilwell was a skilled tactician in U.S. Army's land warfare tradition, with a deep appreciation of the logistics required of campaigning in rough terrain (hence his dedication to the Ledo Road project, for which he received several awards, including the Distinguished Service Cross and the US Army Distinguished Service Medal). Stilwell was also a pretty good judge of men. His derogatory evaluation of Chiang Kai-Shek proved accurate, as did his appraisal of the leadership qualities and field value of Mao Zedong and his communist troops. The trust Stilwell placed in men of real insight and character in understanding China, particularly the China Hands, John Stewart Service and John Paton Davies, Jr., confirms this assessment.

Arguably, had Stilwell been given the number of American regular infantry divisions he had continually requested, the American experience in China and Burma would have been very different. Certainly, his Army peers, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Gen. George Marshall had the highest respect for his abilities, and both saw he replaced Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner as commander of Tenth U.S. Army at Okinawa after the latter's death. During the last year of the war, however, the U.S. was strained to meet all its military obligations, and cargo aircraft diverted to supply Stilwell, the 14th Air Force, and the Chinese in the East left air-drop-dependent campaigns in the West, such as Operation Market Garden, woefully short of aircraft. The destruction of 1st Airborne at Arnhem was one result of these competing demands.

Although Chiang succeeded in removing Stilwell, the public relations damage suffered by his Kuomintang regime was irreparable. Right before Stilwell's departure, New York Times drama critic-turned-war correspondent Brooks Atkinson interviewed him in Chungking and wrote, "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. The Chinese Communists... have good armies that they are claiming to be fighting guerrilla warfare against the Japanese in North China—actually they are covertly or even overtly building themselves up to fight Generalissimo's government forces... The Generalissimo naturally regards these armies as the chief threat to the country and his supremacy... has seen no need to make 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." Atkinson, who had visited Mao in Yenan, saw the Communist Chinese forces as a democratic movement (after Atkinson visited Mao, his article on his visit was titled Yenan: A Chinese Wonderland City), and the Nationalists in turn as hopelessly reactionary and corrupt; this view was shared by many of the U.S. press corps in China at the time. The negative image of the Kuomintang in America played a significant factor in Harry Truman's decision to end all U.S. aid to Chiang at the height of the Chinese civil war, a war that resulted in the communist revolution in China and Chiang's retreat to Taiwan.

Read more about this topic:  Joseph Stilwell

Famous quotes containing the word historical:

    What is the historical function of Parliament in this country? It is to prevent the Government from governing.
    George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950)