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July 2024
2min read

In this, the second installment of a three-part series by Barbara W. Tuchman from her forthcoming book, now retitled The Utmost Try: Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911–45 , the turmoil and conflicts that have torn China apart come into focus as Japan launches her long-feared invasion. StilwelLis again on hand to witness the momentous turn of events after seven years spent back in the United States.

He had gone home from China in 1Q29 to become head of the Tactical Section of the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, a post held open for him by George C. Marshall, like Stilwell a veteran of the lgth Infantry at Tientsin, who, as assistant commandant of the school was reorganizing the curriculum to stress practical experience in the field as opposed to rote training by the manual. It was here that his biting criticisms during maneuvers earned Stilwell his nickname of Vinegar Joe. Although a warm, devoted family man within the sanctuary of his own home, Stilwell acknowledged that he could be at times “unreasonable, impatient, sour-balled, sullen, mad, hard, profane, vulgar. … “He stayed at Fort Benning until May, 1933, and was later assigned to San Diego to train organized reserves. When the opportunity arose the following year to seek appointment as the American military attaché m Peiping, he quickly applied and was named to the post.

The China Stilwell returned to in 1Q35 was in the midst of a deepening internal revolt and menacing external aggression. In September, 1931, Japanese troops had seized Mukden in Manchuria after a staged incident and established themselves on the mainland in control of the puppet state of Manchukuo. Too engrossed in fighting rebellious war lords and Communist insurgents, Chiang Kai-shek made no attempt to stop the invaders. Chiangjelt that pacification of China was more vital than meeting the Japanese threat, for China, he believed, could always retreat from enemy troops into her geographic vastness. Moreover, he hoped that Japanese expansion would ultimately pose a threat to the Western powers and prod them into action. However, “history is the unfolding of miscalculations,” as Mrs. Tuchman pointedly notes, for, unopposed, the Japanese pushed onward toward the Great Wall that separates Manchuria from China proper. Chiang appealed to the League of Nations for sanctions against Japan, to no avail; the British, faced with their troubles in Europe, wanted to avoid another area of conflict in the Far East, and despite its vocal concern for China’s fate, the United States shied away from taking any real action. Avoiding outright confrontation with the Japanese, Chiang set out in 1934 on his fifth “extermination” campaign against the Communists, one that drove them into a great retreat to the west, later famous as the Long March.

By the time Stilwell reached Peipmg in July, 1Q35, north China was crumbling under pressure of the Japanese who had crossed the Wall into Hopei, the province that included Peipmg and Tientsin, and from here conducted a steady program of intimidation toward the goal of detaching the five provinces of north China as an “autonomous” state like Manchukuo. Under a series of arrangements negotiated with or imposed upon the Chinese government, Chinese sovereignty was progressively restricted, Chinese troops were required to withdraw south of a “demilitarized zone,” anti-Japanese officiais were removed and replaced by puppets, and all anti-Japanese activity was sternly suppressed. Although the Japanese were not yet in formal occupation of Peiping, the daily reality of China’s subjugation was made apparent by the presence of Japanese soldiers strutting m the streets, knocking Chinese out of the way with blows of their rifle butts, while their officers dictated to puppet governors and officials, and issued fireeating statements about Japan’s divine mission in Asia.

Tours that took him from south China to Manchuria reinforced Stilwell’s pessimism about Chiang as a general: he could find no evidence of military preparation to resist the invader. Popular sentiment for resistance, however, was growing insistent. The Communists, who saw in it their avenue to the people, made the patriotic anli-Japanese cause their own and clamored for a “united front” of all China against Japan. Besides reflecting the Comintern policy of a united front against fascism, this would require Chiang Kai-shek to leave off his relentless campaign against themselves. Through the bizarre kidnapping of Chiang Kai-shek by the war lord Chang Hsueh-liang m collaboration with the Communists in December, 1936, the Generalissimo was forced to agree to a United Front policy. The sense of national unity that Japan thought had resulted now prodded her extremist military faction into fateful action. —The Editors

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