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Stilwell and the American Experience in China


By Barbara W. Tuchman

On April 18 of this year an aged group of veteran airmen met to celebrate the 71st anniversary of an event in World War II that captured the attention of the world. Colonel James H. Doolittle led a force of sixteen U.S. Army B-25 bombers on a daring raid of Tōkyō, Yokohama, Nagoya and other sites in Japan. In 1944 this event became a motion picture entitled, “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” with Spenser Tracy playing the part of Doolittle. In the years since then, that war has continued to grip the imagination of people everywhere. However, memory of it is inexorably fading away. And the battles that are the most famous are just part of the story.

When one thinks back on the Second World War, one recalls dramatic moments like the attack on Pearl Harbor, the landing at Normandy, the Battle of the Coral Sea and that of Midway Island, Iwojima, the Battle of the Bulge and similar decisive engagements. These were indeed turning points in history, and yet the war was fought on a much larger scale.


And the origins of the war go back decades before erupting in worldwide conflict. Stilwell and the American Experience in China by Barbara W. Tuchman examines the Pacific side of the combat in the context of the earliest involvement of the United States in China, starting with the Chinese Republican Revolution in 1911 and continuing through the liberation of the country in 1945 after the defeat of the Japanese. She uses Joseph W. Stilwell as the protagonist in the story. He played a significant role that has been underappreciated over the years. At the same time, Tuchman thoroughly explores the dramatic cultural, social and political changes that took place during that period in China. After China fell to the Communists led by Mao Zedong in 1949 there was much vituperative discussion to find out “who lost China?” She shows through an exhaustive examination of the historical events that occurred at the time, that China was not a presence that was owned by any foreign country, least of all the U.S. (despite the billions of dollars that was spent to prop up Chiang Kai-shek and his corrupt Nationalist forces), and therefore could not have been “lost.”

“Vinegar Joe” Stilwell was born on March 19, 1883 on a plantation near Palatka, Florida. One of the fascinating things about reading this kind of historical work is to see how far back into the past personages like this trace their roots. He was the eighth generation in direct descent from Nicholas Stilwell, who came to America from England in 1638. Stilwell’s middle name was Warren, being christened in honor of the friend of the family and attending physician, Dr. Joseph Warren of Boston, who was himself named in honor of one of his ancestors, Dr. Joseph Warren. That figure had refused the post of Surgeon General to take part in active service and was killed in the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Stilwell’s father was a dilettante who took degrees in medicine and law but never managed to find a vocation that suited him. However, he had high hopes for his children and when Joe rebelled in high school, he was shipped off to a military academy to straighten him out. Young Joe took the matter to heart and worked hard to succeed there. The U.S. had just defeated the Spanish in Cuba and the Philippines, so the Army might have seemed a romantic place to be. Especially when it was dispatched to rescue American citizens in China during the Boxer Rebellion. Stilwell had a facility for languages, and was assigned to various posts where he could use his Spanish and French. Later, when he was to be sent to China, he also learned Chinese.

But first he worked hard to get into West Point, where Douglas MacArthur was a cadet in the class ahead of him. Stilwell graduated 32nd in his class of 124, not an outstanding record, but he made lifelong friends in the Army there who aided him in his career later. Tuchman tells the story while describing the milieu in which he lived:

While Stilwell was at West Point preparing to enter it, the Army was undergoing the greatest shaking up in its history. From an unexacting career in 1900 it had been purged, reorganized and reformed into a profession by 1904, at least in theory. If the change was mostly on paper, the foundations of professionalism had been laid. The transforming cause was not so much the recent war as the Secretary of War, Elihu Root.

The chaos of the mobilization for Cuba in 1898 revealed the hopeless inadequacy of the Army’s executive system. It had no General Staff but operated under ten virtually autonomous Bureaus──Quartermaster’s, Paymaster’s, Commissary, Ordnance and so forth. No unit of the armed forces could be activated by a single order since its arms and supplies and auxiliaries and transport each required the orders of a different Bureau. The officers administering the Bureaus held permanent staff jobs, which tended to nourish inertia.

Stilwell was first posted to the Philippines, and then sent back to West Point as an instructor of English, Spanish and French. He hoped to be assigned somewhere for military action, but it was a slow period for the Army. And that was to be the hallmark of his career. He eventually was sent to France during the First World War, but acted in the capacity of liaison to the French command. True combat action eluded him.

A large part of Stilwell and the American Experience in China is devoted to the history of confrontations between Japan and China. That part alone is quite valuable to readers, since few Americans are familiar with that story at all. The facts about Japanese aggression in the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, the Twenty-one Demands of 1915, activity in Korea and the Manchurian fighting as well as other events are fully covered. Again, one looks back at the state of military preparedness in America at that time in wonder:

The United States Army that Stilwell returned to in September 1939 [after a stint as military attaché in China] ranked, with Reserves, 19th among the world’s armed forces, after Portugal but ahead of Bulgaria. In percent of population under arms it ranked 45th. The active Army numbered 174,000 men, less than two-thirds the peacetime strength authorized by Act of Congress in 1920. It had only three organized divisions, none of them more than 50 percent complete, whose components were scattered among a number of posts with no opportunity for divisional training owing to the shortage of motor transport. In addition, there were six partly organized divisions, two Cavalry divisions but not one Armored division. There were no corps troops or GHQ troop units. Training as a field force was inadequate; equipment, modern in 1919 was obsolete. Owing to shortage of funds, maneuvers were held only once every four years for a two-week period with only five days of “very limited action.” The continual paring of appropriations by Congress had reduced the Army, reported its new chief, General Marshall, “to the status of that of a third rate power” with less than 25 percent readiness to fight.

This shows how far America was from being ready for any kind of military action in those days. Most of the population was fed up with war after the country had been drawn into World War I. There was also complacency that the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans offered protection by way of isolation from the fighting in Europe and Asia.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a rude awakening. The country sprang into action, dispatching forces all over the world. Stilwell was assigned to China and eventually served as Commanding General of U.S. Army forces in the CBI theater (China-Burma-India). At this time, those “forces” included only staff, technicians and air force. He eventually commanded a formidable military force there, but it was Chinese.

This is the heart of the book. With the Japanese in control of all of China’s ports, it was essential to keep the Burma Road open in order to keep Chinese soldiers supplied with arms and munitions. Transports flew “over the Hump” from India for that purpose, but the route over the highest mountain range on the planet made this extremely dangerous. When Stilwell finally got the Burma Road open, observers were amazed at the tremendous increase in the flow of matériel to China.

Tuchman was well qualified to write this book, having served on the Far Eastern Desk of the Office of War Information during the war. She also had access to a great deal of inside information about the subject, including Stilwell’s diaries, which she discusses in the Forward to the book:

I should like to add a word of explanation about General Stilwell’s diaries, which were naturally a major source for his biographer. I became thereby a trespasser since the diaries were intended for no eyes but his own. “This little book,” he explicitly warned on the flyleaf of the pocket diary for 1906, “contains None of Your Damned Business!” Believing in the right of privacy, I do not share the view that posterity has some sort of “right” to know the private life of a public figure if he wishes otherwise but in Stilwell’s case the needs of history had already prevailed over privacy. After the war it became important and necessary to let Stilwell’s voice speak for itself about the events of his controversial command. [It was controversial because Stilwell fought with Chiang Kai-shek incessantly for control of the Chinese forces that were nominally under his command. Stilwell was working to counter the Japanese, sometimes on the actual battlefield, while Chiang was secretly issuing commands to the leaders of the troops to hold back. Chiang wanted to preserve his forces for action against the Communists under Mao, not see them die in action against foreigners. After the war, questions arose as to whether there was any connection with the victory of the Communists in 1949. Stilwell had died on October 12, 1946.] With the consent of his family his wartime diaries and letters for the period 1942-44 only were edited by the former correspondent in China, Theodore White, and published under the title The Stilwell Papers in 1948. The originals together with other wartime documents were also made available to Charles Romanus and Riley Sunderland, authors of the official Army history of the China-Burma-India theater, and were subsequently donated for public use to the Hoover Library in Stanford, California.

One point should be made clear: Stilwell’s papers were donated to the Stanford library because he was Commander of Fort Ord in Monterey, California when the Japanese struck at Pearl Harbor. He was in charge of the emergency defensive measures on the West Coast that the Army took in those first confused days. Stilwell also built a house in nearby Carmel which became his permanent U.S. homestead. So he had a real connection to the area.

Stilwell and the American Experience in China displays all the skill in writing that Tuchman did in her other books, such as The Guns of August, which covered the outbreak of the First World War. It is meticulously documented with notes and a comprehensive bibliography. There is also an index, 32 pages of photographs and four full page maps.

This book is essential reading for those who want to understand how Japan and China developed in their own ways and clashed in the twentieth century. It also chronicles the journey of a unique personality during a critical period in American and world history.

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