Strange Bedfellows:
Chiang and Stilwell

Jennifer Wilding and Ralph Zuljan

At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, there were three factions engaged in a bitter struggle for power in China: the Nationalist Party founded by Sun Yat-Sen, and led by Chiang Kai-Shek; the Communist Party, nominally led by Mao Tse-Tung (now translated as Mao Zedong); and the Japanese imperialists, with their Chinese sympathizers. The Nationalists still controlled most of the country, although Chiang was in an increasingly tenuous political position and fighting a two-front war, against the Chinese Communists on one hand and the Japanese on the other. The Nationalist Army was ill-trained, ill-equipped, and spread far too thinly. Help was at hand through the Allies but, to add to Chiang's woes, it arrived in the form of the American General Joseph Warren "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell.

To say that Chiang and Stilwell hated each other is an understatement and, from their own points of view, each had good cause. It is not fair to accuse Stilwell of racial prejudice, judging from the content of his diaries he hated everyone impartially, except his own troops. His contempt for other military leaders and politicians was boundless but his hatred for Chiang (who he referred to as "the Peanut") was acute. Stilwell thought Chiang was a coward who held back urgently needed resources and changed his mind with irrational speed. Chiang saw Stilwell as brusque, overbearing and power hungry.

Stilwell was brusque and overbearing. He was also a brilliant tactical commander and a thoroughly modern American soldier who believed in defensive attack. A graduate of West Point (1904) he had served as an Intelligence Officer in France during the First World War. The Postwar years saw him serving as an instructor at the Fort Benning Infantry School, where he acquired the nickname Vinegar Joe because of his acerbic speech and astounding lack of diplomatic skills. He also served three tours of duty in China, where he learned to speak Mandarin, one of the more common Chinese dialects. In February 1942 he was named Commander of American Forces in the China-Burma-India Theater of War. He would command a multinational force consisting of troops from every Allied nation, with the exception of Russia, and improve the fighting ability of Chinese forces.

Stilwell was selected for this position for a number of reasons. He was an excellent commander, he spoke Chinese, and he was already acquainted with Chiang Kai-Shek. What no-one realized was that he had disliked Chiang from their very first meeting in 1935, their ideologies were poles apart and they did not speak the same language. Stilwell was proud of his command of Mandarin, but Chiang was from the Chekiang District and spoke that dialect. The two dialects have many differences and Stilwell consistently refused the aid of an interpreter. As a result, he often misunderstood Chiang's true response. (This was sometimes a problem between Chiang and his own people.) Worse, from Chiang's point of view, Stilwell was pro-Mao.

Stilwell was not pro-Communist. However, he managed to receive assurances from the Soviets that the Chinese supporting Mao were not true Communists, they were merely agrarian reformers, and therefore were no political threat to Chiang. Stilwell constantly pressed for a reconciliation between Mao and Chiang, believing the resources Chiang devoted to fending off Mao were needed in the war against Japan and he considered the Communists to be better soldiers. If the two armies were united, Stilwell thought, the war could be won. Chiang would have no part of this scheme, it was an enormous source of bitterness and tension between the Allied commander and the Chinese.

There were numerous other sources of conflict but two of the greatest were the lend-lease agreement and ideologies of warfare. Chiang felt that he was being slighted and ignored by the small amount of material available through lend-lease, he was a "less equal" partner in the deal, especially compared to the allotment for Great Britain. As the global war became more intense in other theaters, like North Africa, supplies meant for China ended up being diverted by Allied commanders to the more pressing threats. Stilwell believed such loss of materiel support could be overcome by better training of Chinese troops, amalgamation with Mao, and an aggressive defense. This last is what caused Stilwell to regard Chiang and the Chinese as cowards.

The traditional style of defensive fighting favored by Chiang involved letting the enemy penetrate deep into Chinese territory with minimal resistance. Then, when the Japanese were far from home and exhausted, to hit back very hard indeed. It was effective, but sometimes costly. Furthermore, it was traditional to never retreat into foreign territory, doing so was considered undignified. Stilwell, however, believed in a vigorous defense, meeting the enemy head-on, and retreating wherever expediency demanded in order to regroup and hit them again. During one campaign a retreat was necessary and Stilwell ordered his forces into India. Rather than lose face in a foreign country the Chinese forces under his command fought their way home. To them it was a logical necessity, to Stilwell it was insubordination. It caused an even deeper division between Stilwell and Chiang.

Stilwell never missed an opportunity to denigrate Chiang. In return, Chiang repeatedly requested Stilwell's recall and replacement. Neither ever resisted the chance to undermine the other, particularly with American authorities. And they never learned to ignore their differences and work together, they gave every indication of being on opposing sides rather than the same side in a war.

Eventually Chiang got his wish. After two bitter years Stilwell was recalled to America. He was given command of the Tenth Army Ground Forces and went on to victory at Okinawa. Chiang, given an Allied commander he could work with, endorsed the modernization of the Nationalist Army and contributed to the defeat of Japan in the Pacific Theater.

Originally published in "World War II" at on March 1, 2002.
Reprinted in "Articles On War" at on July 1, 2003.

Former links associated with this file include: