Sour Views of Vinegar Joe Stilwell

Joseph ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell was determined to avenge the defeat that his American and Chinese forces had suffered during the withdrawal of 1942. His ostensible aim was to capture the aerodromes in far northern Burma, especially the one at Myitkyina …. There were two problems about this. The first was Stilwell’s aggressive and misanthropic character and, in particular, his contempt for his allies; the second was that neither move was particularly strategically desirable.

Stilwell was professional soldier who had spent much time in China, but his long service had not instilled in him any great respect for the Chinese. As commander-in-chief of Chiang Kai Shek’s nationalist armies he carried on a running war with Chiang’s other commanders. His disagreements with Chiang over strategy soured relations between the two to the point where the continuation of Stilwell’s command was constantly in question. In Stilwell’s letters home, Chiang became ‘Peanut’, corrupt, obstinate and dominated by his wife, ‘Madame’, and later by his mistress, a nurse several decades his junior. Stilwell portrayed Chiang as hesitant and defensive, unwilling to commit his troops to an attack against the Japanese on the Burma front, afraid of both the Chinese communists and of his own generals. In fact, Chiang was a more astute general than might have appeared. He knew that the real danger to his government lay in a Japanese attack from the north against embattled Chungking. He did not want to send his best troops off to Myitkyina and was perfectly correct in his assessment of the communists, who were hoping to infiltrate into Nationalist China’s territories from the north in the rear of any Japanese advance. Chiang refused to do anything much in Burma until the Allies agreed to put in an amphibious expedition on its southern coast. This again was sensible….

Stilwell’s view of the British was scarcely better than his view of the Chinese. He regarded them as effete, defensive and disorganized. In a later visit to India he marked down [Viceroy] Wavell as a beaten man. The India of which the British were so proud was a pit of famished inefficiency, even more backward than China…. Mountbatten, who assumed the position of Supreme Commander Southeast Asia in the summer of 1943, was simply a ‘glamour boy’, a matinee idol with ‘nice eye-lashes’. This was ironic since Stilwell’s own reputation in America and outside was partly a media creation. He was the gritty American fighter struggling against Chink and Limey obstruction to take the war to the Japs, a poor man’s General MacArthur. The disdain was mutual. Alan Brooke recorded: ‘Except for the fact that he was a stout hearted fighter suitable to lead a brigade of Chinese scallywags, I could see no qualities in him.’ He was an inept tactician and ‘did a vast amount of harm by vitiating the relations between the Americans and British both in India and Burma’. The British high command were very dismissive of the Chinese, too. They suspected them, as Wavell had done in 1942, of having ‘imperial’ designs on north Burma.

SOURCE: Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire & the War with Japan, by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper (Penguin, 2004), pp. 270-272

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