In 2003, Jonathan Fenby, former editor of the London Observer and the Hong Kong South China Morning Post, published a rather revisionist biography, Chiang Kai-shek: China’s Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost. Fenby partially challenges the received wisdom about Chiang, that he was a corrupt and inept ruler, who dragged his heels on fighting the Japanese despite all the aid he got from the United States during World War II, and who lost China to Mao because he was the lesser man. Fenby notes, in passing, that had Chiang not been kidnapped for a few days in 1936, he would have been in a political circumstance to launch an offensive against the communists right there and then when they were still weak, and the twentieth-century history of China might well have been different.
Then, in 2009, Jay Taylor, former China desk officer at the U.S. State Department and later research associate at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard, followed up with a stronger revisionist biography of Chiang, The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China, which more so than the Fenby book took apart many of the preconceptions about the founder of Taiwan. Both authors, Taylor especially, blame the unduly negative image of Chiang on the journalists and State Department foreign service officers who covered China during World War II. The pivotal character in this story was the wartime American military commander in China, Army Lieutenant General Joseph W. Stilwell. Stilwell quite simply hated Chiang, calling him “Peanut” behind his back, and passed on his bile to the journalists and foreign service officers, who, courted by Stilwell, naturally took the American general’s side. Taylor mentions Time’s Theodore H. White, Newsweek’s Harold Isaacs, and the New York Times’s Brooks Atkinson in this regard. It was they especially who began a legend that poisoned Chiang’s reputation for generations to follow.
Indeed, Theodore White writes in his memoir that Stilwell “wanted us to know that from the day of Pearl Harbor on, ‘this ignorant son of a bitch has never wanted to fight Japan.… Every major blunder of this war is directly traceable to Chiang Kai-shek.’” Actually, what really turned White against Chiang was his coverage of the Honan famine in 1943, when he saw how Chiang’s soldiers were, by collecting grain as taxes, literally starving masses of peasants to death. Another factor was the glowing reports that journalists such as White were filing about the communists, including Mao and his number two, the “suave, engaging” Zhou Enlai, with whom, as White admits, he “had become friends.” The “wine of friendship flowed,” White recalls about his relationship with Zhou. White admits from the vantage point of 1978—three and a half decades after the war—that in Zhou’s presence he had “near total suspension of disbelief or questioning judgment.… I can now see Chou for what he was: a man as brilliant and ruthless as any the Communist movement has thrown up in this century.” Then there was the heady experience of actually meeting Mao himself in his northern China lair in Yan’an during World War II. “What scored on my mind most was his [Mao’s] composure,” White writes. “There was no knee jiggling as with Chiang Kai-shek.… The indelible impression was … a man of the mind who could use guns, whose mind could compel history to move to his ideas.” About Chiang, White writes of his “rigid morality … animal treachery, warlord cruelty and an ineffable ignorance of what a modern state requires.” It would have been better had Chiang been removed from the Chinese leadership early enough in the war, White says.
Historians Jay Taylor and Jonathan Fenby go a significant way toward dismantling the worldview of White and his colleagues.
Taylor’s book, published by Harvard University Press, is particularly trenchant, given what we in the West think we know about Chiang. Precisely because Taylor (and Fenby, too) do not engage in a whitewash, after finishing their books we feel that we know Chiang from the inside, rather than through a Western journalistic prism unduly influenced by Stilwell.
Taylor admits that Chiang (unlike Mao) “had little charisma and was generally not liked by his peers.… He was an inhibited man … a staid seemingly humorless individual who had a terrible temper.” More crucially, Chiang from early on, as a result of his studies, was consciously Confucianist, a worldview that emphasized political order, respect for family and hierarchy, and conservative stability. It is this belief system that has ultimately triumphed—whether admitted to or not—throughout much of East Asia and in China itself, accounting for the region’s prosperity over recent decades, even as the communism of Mao and Zhou Enlai has been utterly discredited.
Besides Confucianist thought, Chiang in his early years was also deeply influenced by the culture of Japan, which to Chiang embodied “disciplined efficiency,” from the train system to education to manufacturing. Japan’s fierce modernism infected Chiang with the need to fight corruption. But here he encountered fierce resistance, like when Nationalist army commanders rejected Chiang’s calls to centralize military financing. Chiang, according to Taylor, “soon realized that he had to give the fight against corruption much lower priority than that of retaining cohesion and loyalty among his disparate supporters … both civilian and military. He had no choice.” Chiang has often been accused of tolerating corruption, but the alternative in the warlord age in which he operated was to become an extremist ideologue, like Mao. Chiang was far from perfect; but neither was he as deeply flawed as his detractors, applying the standards of the West to a chaotic early-twentieth-century China, demanded. “Craftiness and suspicion are the usual marks of successful political leaders in Chiang’s circumstances,” Taylor explains. No doubt, years of warfare in the 1920s and early 1930s established Chiang as an exceptional military commander, maneuvering multiple army corps over thousand-mile fronts, without tanks, maps, and trucks, and with only a few rail lines, often in circumstances of personal bravery. He used bribery and divide-and-rule tactics against the warlords, even while, “as an expression of rote neo-Confucian self-cultivation,” Chiang complained in his diary of his personal shortcomings.
A map of China during this period establishes the formidable circumstances facing Chiang, as well as his considerable achievement: the whole of central and coastal China divided into massive puddles of warlord control, over which Chiang slowly, painstakingly, established a very tenuous primacy. And he did it without foreign aid, unlike Mao’s communists. He was paying for weapons and training from Germany, even as there is no evidence in his statements or in his diary that he ever subscribed to Hitler’s fascist ideology, according to Taylor. Under Chiang, says Taylor, the power and authority of the central government was greater than at any point since the mid-nineteenth century, while the rate of illiteracy among government troops diminished over these years from 70 to 30 percent. Fenby concurs, pointing out that Chiang’s Nationalist ascendancy in parts of the country “was a time of modernization such as China had not seen before … there was a flowering of thought, literature, art and the cinema,” and the repression used by the regime was not comparable to what the communists would later unleash. Without Chiang, Fenby writes, “the odds would have been on a continuation of the warlord era, and the fragmentation of China into eternally conflicting fiefdoms.” It was Chiang who kept in check pro-Japanese elements in his administration, which on their own might have allied China with Japan, opening up an attack on the Soviet Union from the east while Hitler attacked from the west. After the fall of Nanjing to the Japanese in 1937, Taylor writes, “Chiang Kai-shek issued a proclamation as rousing as that which Churchill would give twenty-one months later and with some similar imagery.”
Stilwell missed all of this. “In Stilwell’s mind,” writes Taylor, “Chiang had no values; no skills in government or generalship; no real interest in the modernization and welfare of China … no human qualities worth noting.… For Stilwell, life was categorical, nuances nonexistent.” While American officials, influenced by Stilwell, believed Chiang wanted to avoid fighting the Japanese in order to store arms to fight the communists later on, during the 1941–1942 Burma campaign Chiang’s troops suffered eighty thousand killed and wounded, whereas total American casualties around the world at that point were 33,000. By the end of fourteen years of war with Japan, China would sustain three million military casualties, 90 percent of them Chiang’s troops. Meanwhile, Mao’s communists were pursuing the very strategy Chiang was accused of: avoiding major military entanglements with the Japanese in order to hoard their strength to later fight the Nationalists. But this did not prevent foreign service officers like John Paton Davies and John Stewart Service, who were working for Stilwell, from describing Mao’s communists as “agrarian democrats” and “much more American than Russian in form and spirit.” Mao would go on to kill tens of millions of people—sixty million perhaps—in government-induced famines and other atrocities, which in absolute terms—along with the Mongol Conquests of the thirteenth century—counts as the second largest man-made carnage in history after World War II. What these foreign service officers and journalists overlooked was that Mao’s talent for creating a mass organization—the very thing that Chiang distrusted, according to Fenby—made Mao’s movement more dynamic, and thus more impressive to Western visitors, but also more dangerous should that mass organization pivot in a totalitarian direction.
Chiang would be proven right in his assessment, made near the end of World War II, that rather than agrarian democrats, Mao’s forces would prove to be “more communistic than the Russian communists.” Indeed, the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution would both occur within a quarter century of that statement. And yet Chiang’s Guomindang army failed utterly to meet Stilwell’s expectations, and thus remained the corrupt, inefficient force that went on to be vanquished by Mao. Barbara Tuchman, Stilwell’s sympathetic biographer, may have caught the imperfections of Chiang best by labeling him a master of “plots” who “governed for survival,” rather than for social change, even as among the Nationalists there was—as one Chinese academic put it—“no one better in sight.” Chiang’s seeming “infuriating absence of conscience” in the eyes of the Americans was, in part, Tuchman says, a consequence of Chiang’s resentment at China being treated as a minor theater in the war, with most of the aid and attention going to Europe.
Tuchman grasps what Stilwell didn’t. “The Kuomintang military structure could not be reformed without reform of the system from which it sprang,” but China was not “clay in the hands of the West.” Or as Fenby puts it, Stilwell “was behaving as if he were in a stable democracy, where a professional army is answerable to an elected government, fenced off from interference in politics.” Nobody understood China and Chiang’s tragedy as much as Chiang himself. In what Taylor calls his “remarkably candid” assessment, penned in January 1949, following the communist takeover of the mainland, Chiang wrote, “we are in a transitional period where the old system has been abolished but the new system is yet to be built.” He implies that the blame falls with the incoherent and fractious system he himself had managed, in turn a product of the warlord era.
Because this revisionist retrospective is so long, it will be the last passage I quote from this book.