by Emma Jacobs
In the weeks following the Pearl Harbor attacks, President Roosevelt declared allyship with China and appointed Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, the leader of China and the Chinese Nationalist Party, as Supreme Allied Commander throughout the Chinese theater. By February 1942, Joseph Stilwell, an American general, served as Chiang's chief of staff. Although Chiang expressed concerns over Stilwell's expanding military responsibilities, their early partnership was productive; however, the Burma campaign, beginning in mid-1942, would ultimately squander their alliance (Kuo et al.). After Japan commenced its occupation of Burma, Stilwell strategized to re-establish China's supply routes in Burma. Still, Chiang felt exploited by American armies that ordered his soldiers to maintain Britain's colonial rule.
Chiang and Stilwell's disputes were due to their personality and cultural differences. Nicknamed "Vinegar Joe" for his hardened disposition and forthright political approach, Stilwell was ill-equipped to negotiate with the evasive Generalissmo (Romanus and Sunderland 143). As a result, American media outlets quickly villainized Chiang, praising Stilwell's attempts to swiftly end the war and characterizing Chiang as a symbol of the "red tape" preventing the ceasefire (Lubell 10). Accounts of their relationship vary, but Stilwell offered repeated insults against Chiang. Whether Stilwell dubbed him a "stuffed shirt" or "peanut," by the time Roosevelt replaced him as the American ambassador, Vinegar Joe made his contempt for Chiang's military ineptitude well-known (Hymel 9-10). Nevertheless, as modern historical interpretation makes clear, "to assume that a personality conflict was the only cause for the Stilwell-Chiang embroglio would be simplistic" (Miller 60). Instead, their conflict centered around strategy, particularly in Burma.
Chiang entered the agreement with Roosevelt for two reasons, neither of which included the Burma campaign. Primarily, Chiang recognized the inferior quality of his army and knew that defeating Japan was impossible without American military intervention (Lubell 11). Moreover, in the face of worsening inflation, civilian morale, and rising communist parties, the Nationalist leader clung to hopes for Chinese unification (Kuo et al.). Stilwell remained committed to defeating Japan but showed little concern for the nationalists' larger goal. To Chiang, the Burma campaign epitomized Stilwell's disregard for the Chinese people and would eventually prompt the end of their alliance.
In the logistical sense, Chiang could not justify allocating funds and manpower away from China and into Burma: "he wanted maximum effort on the Chinese eastern front to halt the advancing Japanese" (Miller 60). Leaving his country vulnerable to attack while defending another nation would have denoted poor leadership, and Chiang could not afford such criticism during the economic downturn. Further, Chinese unification would be far more difficult to achieve with Japanese intrusions happening along the border. The Burma attacks also troubled Chiang ideologically, for he felt no obligation to protect British lands. Britain's colonial legacy was especially unpopular in eastern countries, and for China specifically, Chiang found certain Sino-British treaties to unfairly favor their empire (60). Thereby, Chiang prioritized his fiscal and political skepticism over the trade advantages Stilwell advertised due to his efforts in Burma.
The Burma Campaign raised another issue for Stilwell and Chiang – the prospect of using communist forces. Although Chiang modeled his leadership after Sun Yat-sen's communist vision, by 1927, he expelled communists from the National Party, most likely because communist radicals frequently attempted to overthrow him. When Stilwell proposed accepting aid from communist soldiers, Chiang declined, labeling communism as the "disease of the heart" (60). Stilwell ridiculed his refusal and accused Chiang of placing politics above ending the war. These accusations do not appear unfounded, for Chiang seemed wary about strengthening national armies that could oppose his rule. American officials observed his apprehension of military progress, even worrying that nationalist soldiers were hoarding American weapons to defend against an incoming communist uprising (Lubell 11). In denying communist troops, he ensured the stagnation of the Burma campaign but also limited the number of servicemen fighting against Japan. Chiang believed the opposite, but in 1942, the Japanese posed more pressing threats against China than communists. Surely, integrating communist forces into the national army may have complicated national unification, but such unity was only possible after eliminating Japanese fighters.
Their relationship concluded after Roosevelt replaced Vinegar Joe in 1944. Chiang could not fully celebrate because Japanese forces conquered Burma and China shortly after his departure. Stilwell was placed in a difficult position as the commander of military operations in India, Burma, and China, and Chiang similarly struggled to uphold China's national identity during the war. No strategy could have defended China entirely; guarding Burma left the east open to attack, just as guarding the east allowed Japan into northern Burma. Their disputes resulted from their lack of manpower, not because of, in the words of Roosevelt, their "clash of personalities." Neither Joseph Stilwell nor Chiang Kai-Shek left the war worthy of heroic status; Chiang frequently chose self-preservation over peace, while Vinegar Joe's reluctance to compromise with Chinese officials made victory unattainable.
Hymel, Kevin. "Vinegar Joe's Lost Command." On Point, vol. 5, no. 4, 1999, pp. 7–10. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44609954. Accessed 11 Jun. 2022.
Kuo, Tai-Chun, et al. "Vinegar Joe and the Generalissimo." Hoover Institution, 30 July 2005, https://www.hoover.org/research/vinegar-joe-and-generalissimo.
Lubell, Samuel. Saturday Evening Post, vol. 217, no. 35, Feb. 1945, pp. 9–58. EBSCOhost, https://search-ebscohost-com.rocky.iona.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ulh &AN=20085657&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
Miller, John R. "The Chiang--Stilwell Conflict, 1942-1944." Military Affairs, vol. 43, no. 2, 1979, pp. 59–62. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1986659. Accessed 11 Jun. 2022.
Romanus, Charles F., and Riley Sunderland. Stilwell's Mission to China. University Press of the Pacific, 2002.
For more, check out: