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Stilwell in China: The Worst Command in the War

On Jan.1, 1942, Maj. Gen. Joseph Stilwell was thick in the planning for Operation Gymnast, the original code-name for the landings in North Africa, when he was summoned into the office of Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall. The subject: China. With a relationship poisoned by history, ill will, and conflicting strategic goals, the British and Nationalist Chinese allies were at loggerheads. Roosevelt ordered Marshall to send a high ranking general to China to be a buffer between the two, and keep China in the war. Stilwell, who had served three tours of duty in China, was the army’s foremost China expert – not only fluent in Mandarin, he could curse a blue streak in a number of Chinese dialects. The short list contained two names: Lt. Gen. Hugh Drum, and Stilwell. Stilwell recommended Drum. As for why, in his diary he wrote, “They remember me as a small-fry colonel that they kicked around.”

“Your leadership, especially under the peculiar conditions and difficulties of your authority and in a desperately critical situation, is a model for our army.”

Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall personal letter to Lt. Gen. Joseph Stilwell, April 29, 1942

Gen. George C. Marshall and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson

Gen. George C. Marshall and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson confer in the Munitions Building, Washington, D.C. Jan. 1942. Stimson and Marshall selected the reluctant Stilwell for the task of serving as the U.S. commander in China. U.S. Army photo

But Drum, through his arrogance and demands, took himself out of the running. On Jan. 12, Stilwell was again in Marshall’s office. Marshall told him, “Joe, you have twenty-four hours to think up a better candidate. Otherwise it’s you.” The next day, Stilwell met with Secretary of War Henry Stimson. Stimson asked the general what he thought of the China command. After swallowing hard and knowing that his next words would lose him the amphibious operation command, Stilwell said, “I’d go where I was sent.”

The assignment had all the elements of a career-destroying snakepit. Whereas Stilwell loved China and its people (he and his wife regarded it as a second home), he had no illusions or respect for its leaders. The posting carried with it three jobs: chief of staff to Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek; commanding officer of American forces in China; and Lend Lease administrator. It needed an individual possessing the tact, patience, and diplomatic skills of a Talleyrand. Instead, on March 6, 1942, Chung Kai-shek greeted an Anglophobic, newly-minted American lieutenant general with the nickname “Vinegar Joe.”

Their first meeting went well enough. A second meeting three days later to discuss strategy for a coordinated campaign with the British against the Japanese in Burma exposed the vast rift between the two. Stilwell wrote in his diary: “What a mess. How they hate the Limeys. And what a sucker I am.”

Soon the phrase “Chiang Kai-shek and his changeable mind [have] me worried” and its variations began appearing in his diary. It didn’t help that of the four theaters of war Stilwell’s command was the lowest on the logistics totem pole and the furthest away from the United States.

Chiang was reluctant to fight the Japanese, but was eager to get Lend-Lease supplies – to fight the Chinese communists under Mao Zedong. Stilwell was eager to fight, but as keeper of the keys to the Lend-Lease warehouse, Stilwell would go to hell before giving Chiang anything without assurance that he’d release the Chinese armies to fight the Japanese.

Lt. Gen. Stilwell Inspects Chinese Army Soldiers

From left to right: Maj. Gen. Sun Li-jen, Lt. Gen. Lo Cho-ying, and Lt. Gen. Stilwell inspect Chinese Nationalist soldiers at the Ramgarh Training Center. U.S. Army photo

By June 1942, their relationship had deteriorated to a point that for a period of one month, Chiang refused to answer Stilwell’s memos. Instead, he went around Stilwell’s back, using T.V. Soong, his representative in America and his wife’s brother, to petition for Lend-Lease aid and spread falsehoods about Stilwell.

On July 19, 1942, Stilwell’s diary entry began: “Got Shang Chen [Director of the Foreign Affairs Bureau of the Chinese general staff] in and gave him the memo on Burma for transmittal to Peanut. This is an attempt to give Peanut an out on his big demands, and show his willingness to cooperate.” “Peanut” was Chiang Kai-shek. This was Stilwell’s first use of the derogatory nickname, repeated often from that point on.

Chiang repeatedly tried to get Stilwell relieved. But Marshall, protecting Stilwell in Washington, D.C., prevented it. Chiang finally got his wish in October 1944. Stilwell’s biographer, Barbara Tuchman, wrote that on October 26, “after 32 months of unslackened pursuit of the least attainable American goal of the war, [Stilwell] wrote the last entry of his mission: ‘Shoved off – last day in CBI [China Burma India Theater].’”

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...