In 1971, as the Vietnam War reached a critical stage, Barbara Tuchman published Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945, which became a best-seller and won the acclaimed historian her second Pulitzer Prize.
By JOHN POMFRET
The Washington Post
A vocal opponent of the conflict in Indochina, Tuchman wrote the book in part to instruct Americans on the dangers of backing an Asian tinpot dictator, such as it did with the corrupt, incompetent regime of Chiang Kai-shek. It should not do so again.
Tuchmans book was the most influential piece of a slew of scholarship about the United States and China that emerged in the shadow of the war in Vietnam. The outlines of that generally accepted storyline are these: The United States tried to help China fight Japan during World War II. But the government that America chose to support was so corrupt and inept that the heroic U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Vinegar Joe Stilwell could do little to get China to fight.
The only ones really interested in saving China were its communists, captained by Mao Zedong. But America, blind to Maos patriotism and obsessed with its fight against the Reds, backed the wrong horse and pushed Mao away. The inevitable result? The emergence of an anti-American communist regime in China.
Over the past decade and more, however, historians in the United States, Britain, Russia, Taiwan and even China have dismantled Tuchmans tale piece by piece.
First and foremost, Chiangs armies fought and bled for China, for four years alone against Japan and then for four more years with their American and British allies. One fact alone sums up the truth of this assertion: 90 percent of the casualties on the Chinese side were nationalist troops.
Second, far from being a strategic visionary, Stilwell committed a string of disastrous military mistakes that resulted in the slaughter of tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers damaging Chiangs ability to defend his country first against Japan and later against communist forces backed by the U.S.S.R.
Third, it is extremely unclear how much Maos forces actually fought the Japanese. Maos armies conducted what he called a sparrow war, limited to small-scale guerrilla attacks. In fact, the communists lost more troops in attacking their erstwhile nationalist allies than in fighting the Japanese.
Finally, there is no ground for believing as Tuchman did so firmly that Washington had a chance to pull Mao away from Stalins embrace.
Rana Mitters new book, Forgotten Ally, falls neatly into this welcome new trend and deserves to be read by anyone interested in China, World War II and the future of Chinas relations with the rest of the world.
A professor of history at Oxford University, Mitter concentrates on the lives of three men: Chiang, Mao and Wang Jingwei, the dashingly handsome Benedict Arnold of modern Chinese history, who, believing resistance to Japan was futile, broke with Chiang in 1938 to lead a quisling government set up by the Japanese.
Chiang established strong links to the West. Mao relied on the Soviet Union, albeit with a fanatical independent streak. Wang believed that China should unite with other Asian nations to counter the marauding white man. Elements of each view remain prominent in the psyche of China today.
Mitter argues that Chinas war story has never been told properly, that the country has always been portrayed as a minor player, a bit-part actor. While France caved immediately, China stuck it out until the end, pinning down more than half a million Japanese men and materiel that would have otherwise threatened British India and possibly even the mainland United States.
The toll on China alone qualifies as a major story, Mitter notes 14 million dead, 80 million refugees and the pulverizing of the countrys embryonic modernization.
The book dismantles the Stilwell myth. In Mitters telling, Stilwell, who had no command experience before his tour in China, comes off as a petulant, small-minded, strategically limited, diplomatically tone-deaf leader obsessed with one thing only: Burma, which, Mitter notes, was a target of dubious value.
Twice, in 1942 and then two years later, Stilwell strong-armed Chiang into devoting Chinas most professionally trained soldiers to quixotic attempts to beat back the Japanese in Burma, each time with disastrous results. Let them stew, came Stilwells reply when subordinates pleaded with him for a mere 1,000 tons of supplies to reinforce Chiangs armies in Chinas east.
The weakest part of the book is the acceptance of the notion that Maos men fought the Japanese, but Mitter details only one major communist campaign the Battle of the Hundred Regiments, which was an absolute failure. Mitter quotes Mao spouting off about military strategy and even celebrating nationalist defeats. But we never see the communists actually fighting, except for stray but unspecified guerrilla campaigns.
But Mitter bolsters the counterargument that Mao kept his powder dry, grew his army and waited to profit from Chiangs victory. If the communists hit the Japanese so hard, why then did the imperial army not target their revolutionary capital in Yenan more often? From 1938 until late 1941, Mitter reports, Japanese bombers hit it a mere 17 times, killing a total of 214. As to the suffering visited on Chiangs capital, Chongqing, 5,000 died in just two days of air raids in 1939.
In the end, Mitter writes, Chiang won the war but lost his country. And Mao walked off with the prize.
John Pomfret, a longtime Washington Post correspondent, is the author of Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China.