At a Thanksgiving celebration held on November 25 in the American ambassador’s villa near Cairo, President Franklin D. Roosevelt offered a toast to the small group of guests that included British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his daughter Sarah: “Large families are usually more closely united than small ones . . . and so, this year, with the peoples of the United Kingdom in our family, we are a large family, and more united than ever before. I propose a toast to this unity, and may it long continue!” It was an expansive, generous, and high-minded toast. It was also an unctuous lie. Of all the war conferences held during the conflict, Sextant I (Nov. 22-26, 1943) was the most acrimonious and least successful. Historian Frank McLynn in his book The Burma Campaign went so far as to term it a “fiasco.” The reason for it was simple: China.
Of all the war conferences held during the conflict, Sextant I (Nov. 22-26, 1943) was the most acrimonious and least successful.
The difference in strategic aims between the United States and Great Britain regarding the role of China in the war wasn’t a rift; it was a chasm. Roosevelt supported the Nationalist Chinese. The British believed the Nationalists were unreliable allies and that supplying them was a waste of offensive resources.
Even before the conference began, both the British and Americans were in irritable moods – the Americans because word of the conference had leaked, increasing security concerns, and the British because Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek had been invited. Chief of the Imperial General Staff Gen. Sir Alan Brooke, in an addendum to his Nov. 21, 1943 diary entry, wrote a scathing summary of the negative impact of Chiang’s presence: “The whole conference had been thrown out of gear by Chiang Kai-shek arriving here too soon. We should never have started our conference with Chiang; by doing so we were putting the cart before the horse. . . . We should have started this conference by thrashing out thoroughly with the Americans the policy and strategy for the defeat of Germany. We could then have shown a united front to Stalin [a reference to the imminent Eureka conference in Tehran] and finally, if time permitted seeing Chiang and Madam [Chiang].”
The Nationalist Chinese themselves had done little to help their cause and much to hurt it. The government was notoriously corrupt and more interested in fighting the Communist Chinese under Mao Zedong than the Japanese. Complicating things further, Chiang Kai-shek hated the American field commander and Lend-Lease aid administrator Lt. Gen. Joseph Stilwell (a feeling justifiably reciprocated), and was deeply suspicious of British imperial motives in the region.
“Brooke got nasty and King got good and sore. King almost climbed over the table at Brooke. God, he was mad. I wish he had socked him.”
On the morning of November 23, the first full day of the conference, the Americans and the British promptly locked horns over a proposed Burma offensive. The British chiefs’ concern was to prevent any negative impact on offensive operations the Mediterranean (already a flashpoint thanks to Churchill’s disastrously quixotic Dodecanese campaign). Americans sought to make the Burma offensive sufficiently strong to boost Nationalist morale and participation.
Tempers flared with U.S. Navy chief Adm. Ernest King and Chief of the Imperial Gen. Staff General Sir Alan Brooke, who cordially hated each other, getting into a slanging match. Stilwell, who witnessed the exchange, wrote in his diary, “Brooke got nasty and King got good and sore. King almost climbed over the table at Brooke. God, he was mad. I wish he had socked him.”
Chiang further muddied things in a meeting with Roosevelt with his pie-in-the-sky proposal of 30 trained Chinese divisions for Burma in January 1944, followed by an additional 60 divisions ready for offensives in China. In return Chiang demanded additional American aid, which Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall, thanks to information about Chinese corruption and intransigence provided by Stilwell and others, refused.
Talks were suspended on November 25 for Thanksgiving. Any bonhomie from that celebration ended in the morning meeting the next day. As Brooke wrote in his diary, “Marshall and I had the father and mother of a row!” Their differences centered on amphibious operations involving assaults on the island of Rhodes and the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal and their impact on Overlord’s schedule. Aides were ordered to leave and the chiefs thrashed out details behind closed doors. Caught between conflicting priorities, a presidential mandate to support China and keeping Overlord on schedule, Marshall was forced to yield on Overlord. In his diary, Brooke noted with satisfaction, “In the end we secured most of the points we were after.”
Everyone was glad to see Sextant I end. Roosevelt’s senior military advisor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. William Leahy, later noted in his memoir I Was There, “As we closed these unproductive Combined Staff talks at Cairo on the afternoon of November 26, the question of implementing our promised support to Chiang by providing whatever was necessary to recapture Burma still was undecided.”