Category Archives: U.S.

Telling Omissions in Pacific Theater War Reporting

From Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff (HarperCollins, 2011), pp. 234–236:

Even when far back from enemy lines, standard practice among reporters in war zones was to painstakingly record, and then publish, the names and hometowns of servicemen and -women. That way, their families and friends back home could enjoy the acknowledgment of their loved ones’ courage, as well as the reflected glory of knowing someone involved in the war effort. “Names are news,” as the saying went. Publishers encouraged the practice for commercial reasons as much as journalistic ones: printing a local person’s name in the newspaper generated loyalty among readers and encouraged the purchase of extra copies, for posterity.

With one glaring, categorical exception, the reporters covering the Gremlin Special crash faithfully followed this practice. They published the names and hometowns of the survivors and the crash victims, and also the chaplains who flew over the valley for funeral rites, the planners in Hollandia, and the crew of the 311 supply plane. They included the names of not only the pilot, copilot, and radio operator but also the flight engineer, Sergeant Anson Macy of Jacksonville, Florida, and the cargo crew.

But as obvious as the reporters’ obsession with Margaret [Hastings, the only female survivor] was their tendency to overlook the 1st Recon paratroopers of Filipino descent. That oversight came despite the fact that all but Rammy Ramirez were natives or residents of the United States, and all were full-fledged members of the U.S. Army. When speaking with reporters by walkie-talkie, [Capt] Walter and [Lt] McCollom repeatedly tried to draw attention to the enlisted paratroopers, particularly the heroic jump by [Sgt] Bulatao and [Cpl] Ramirez into death-defying terrain, and their life-and-limb-saving ministrations to [Cpl] Hastings and [Sgt] Decker.

Yet in one story after another, the medics and paratroopers received little or no credit. Sometimes they appeared anonymously, as in one typical mention: “Two Filipino medics laden with supplies also were dropped by parachute.”

To his credit, Ralph Morton of The Associated Press eventually devoted some ink to the enlisted men of the 1st Recon, as did the [Chicago] Tribune‘s Walter Simmons, who focused most on Sergeant Alfred Baylon. Simmons’s interest in “the stocky, cigar-smoking” Baylon was piqued by the fact that the sergeant hailed from Chicago and had previously worked as an orderly in the city’s Garfield Park Community Hospital.

When the supply plane dropped news clippings about the events in Shangri-La, Walter reacted angrily in his journal to how little acclaim his men received. “So few reporters have given my men the credit due them and are always bringing in outsiders for credit. I certainly hope that when I get out of here I can give the credit to those who deserve it and [to] my enlisted men, who made possible the rescue of these people. It has definitely been no cake party jumping into unexplored country and climbing mountains over the damnest trails ever seen. No complaining, but just slugging along, doing their job.”

As the paratroopers’ leader, Walter received glowing mentions in the press reports. Reporters gave him the title of “rescue chief,” as Ralph Morton put it, presumably to distinguish him from the native chiefs. But throughout the mission reporters used his unloved given name, “Cecil.” And they routinely added an “s” to his last name, calling him “Walters.”

1 Comment

Filed under Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, publishing, U.S., war

Filipino 1st Recon Battalion (Special) in New Guinea

From Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff (HarperCollins, 2011), pp. 141–142:

In November 1944, Earl Walter and sixty-six jump-qualified members of the 5217th Reconnaissance Battalion were sweating out the war in “strategic reserve,” stuck in steamy but peaceful Hollandia [now Jayapura], Dutch New Guinea. The closest thing to excitement came when their battalion was renamed the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion (Special), known as the 1st Recon. The new name did nothing to change their idle fate. Neither did Walter’s promotion from lieutenant to captain.

As months passed, Allied forces under General MacArthur kept busy retaking the islands of the Philippines—one after another, from Leyte to Luzon, Palawan to Mindanao. As the fight progressed, paratroopers from the 503rd and 511th regiments carried out their dangerous and heroic missions on Corregidor and Luzon.

All the while, Walter and his men yearned to get out of the heat of Hollandia and into the fire of war. Their battalion’s devil-may-care motto of Bahala na! a phrase from the Tagalog dialect of the Philippines that can be translated as “Come what may!” [also compared to Inshallah] The more time passed without a mission, the more it seemed like a taunt. The problem, as Walter and his men saw it, was that nothing came their way.

While awaiting orders in Hollandia—some eighteen hundred miles southeast of Manila—Walter’s men pressed him for news. With families and roots in the Philippines, they wanted the honor and the satisfaction of driving the enemy from their homeland. They craved payback for more than two years of Japanese occupation. They wanted revenge for the Bataan Death March of 1942, during which Japanese troops killed or brutalized thousands of captured Filipino and American soldiers along a forced hundred-mile march to a prison camp. Newspapers had detailed the atrocities, fueling a combustible mix of fear and hatred of the Japanese, perhaps nowhere more so than among the men in Walter’s unit. One of them, Corporal Camilo “Rammy” Ramirez, had experienced the horrors of Bataan firsthand before making a daring escape.

Leave a comment

Filed under Indonesia, Japan, military, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, U.S., war

Albright Deaf to Cambodia, 1997

From Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 1906-1950:

Phnom Penh was growing increasingly tense. By the spring of 1997 gun battles on the streets were becoming commonplace. Senior government officials from both the CPP and Funcinpec built sandbag bunkers around their houses; guards stood behind them, their automatic-rifle muzzles pointed toward the street.

Both Hun Sen [head of CPP] and Ranariddh [head of Funcinpec] had personal bodyguard forces that now numbered in the thousands. Not infrequently the two sides exchanged fire. Some soldiers and bodyguards were routinely killed. Just outside Phnom Penh both sides reinforced encampments for large numbers of their personal militia members. “The place was stirred up,” Quinn said, and he made a practice of driving around the city in the evening to “look at the guards outside the houses. Were they slumped down, smoking a cigarette, or maybe asleep?” If so, Quinn knew he could relax for the night. “Or did they have their helmets on, standing behind the sandbag with weapons out?”

It was obvious: A war was about to begin. Diplomats from Europe, Asia, and elsewhere began arriving to talk to Hun Sen and Ranariddh. Don’t do it, they would say. Call it off. But no one was listening.

The embassy looked at all the intelligence and made an estimate of when the fighting would start. They placed the date on or about July 1. But then, out of the blue, Washington told [Ambassador Kenneth M.] Quinn that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wanted to stop by for a visit at the end of June, as part of a larger visit to the region. The country was tumbling toward violence, but “she wanted to talk about a success story, and see Angkor Wat,” Quinn said.

Albright was an inveterate tourist. Whenever she could she would visit countries that also gave her an opportunity to see major attractions. Of course, she did plan to meet with Hun Sen and Ranariddh, as other visiting diplomats had, and warn them not to squander the advances Cambodia had made, thanks to the UN occupation and the $3 billion the world had invested in the state. So she was planning a two-day visit, one day in Phnom Penh for business and the second day at Angkor Wat.

Quinn had been sending regular cables telling the department about the deteriorating situation. But he had no way to know who actually read them. A few days earlier three influential senators—John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts; William Roth, Republican of Vermont; and Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee—had written Albright a letter, saying that despite receiving almost $3.5 billion in international aid in recent years, Cambodia “has become the single fastest-growing narcotics transshipment point in the world; scores of journalists, human-rights workers and political activists have been killed in political violence; the government has failed to establish critical constitutional bodies or pass some of the country’s most basic laws; and corruption has infested and overrun almost every government institution.” Was this really the nation that everyone had spent $3 billion to create?

But these concerns fell on deaf ears. Albright was coming to celebrate a new democracy—though, in Washington, she also said, “I will make very clear that it is important for them to proceed down the democratic path.” But Quinn could see that major violence was now inevitable. He told the State Department she shouldn’t come. “People will set out to embarrass her,” he wrote. “There will be violence. That will make her look weak.” He feared that a bombing, grenade attack, or some other violent act by someone trying to embarrass the government would force her to flee. He was looking out for his secretary, but the department “reacted badly,” Quinn said. The tenor was, “What’s wrong with the ambassador? He isn’t on the team. She’s already announced she is coming.”

In mid-June 1997 real fighting broke out between the two bodyguard units in Phnom Penh. Both sides fired assault rifles at each other and tossed grenades. Explosions rattled the city. Thousands of residents locked their doors, closed their shutters, and huddled together, trembling. One rocket landed in the yard just beside Quinn’s house. It happened to be Quinn’s birthday. “My family had arrived” for the celebration, he said. “They stayed in the States while I was there because there was no high school for my kids in Phnom Penh. We were watching a video, The Thin Man, when we heard a click. I asked, ‘Did you hear that?’ Then a big boom. We threw the kids on the floor. My wife and I lay on top of them.” No one was hurt, and damage was minimal. But he called the State Department Operations Center to advise them of what had just happened.

Quinn was vindicated. The next day the department announced a change in plans. Yes, Phnom Penh was a dangerous place. Perhaps Ranariddh and Hun Sen could come out to meet Secretary Albright at the airport and have their talk. Then she could fly on to Angkor.

Needless to say, Ranariddh and Hun Sen were not talking to each other. They spoke with their guns. But they did manage to agree on one thing: There was no way two heads of state were going to drive out to the airport to meet with a foreign minister—even the American secretary of state. What were they, her supplicants? Ranariddh was a prince, heir to the throne, and the head of state. Hun Sen had been the nation’s undisputed ruler for a decade—and obviously planned to assume that status again, very soon. If she wanted to see them, she would have to drive into town, come to their offices. No, they told her. We won’t do it. Ranariddh showed considerable tact when he explained the decision. “She wanted us to come to the airport,” he told reporters, “but Hun Sen and I agreed that if we just met her at the airport, we would be breaking the principles of protocol.” But then he couldn’t seem to help himself and added, “It’s insulting.”

Using the missile assault on Quinn’s house as the pretext, the department canceled Albright’s stop in Cambodia. She’d have to visit Angkor some other time. Nevertheless, the debate over her visit threw off the American Embassy’s carefully calculated time line. Rather than starting on July 1, as expected, the violence would begin five days late.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cambodia, democracy, military, NGOs, U.N., U.S., Vietnam, war

UN Occupies Cambodia, 1992

From Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 144-165, 1178-1197:

In fact, the Cambodian “war” had ended in 1979, more than a decade before the UN occupation began. An old leader had regained his strength while new ones had emerged. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the consummate self-interested monarch who was extremely popular with most of the Cambodian people, had ruled Cambodia since 1941, until a military coup deposed him in 1970. The Khmer Rouge brought him back as their titular head of state—though he was imprisoned in his palace during their reign. Then, as the UN troops began arriving in 1992, they made him honorary king again. But he wanted nothing less than his old job back—the all-powerful monarch, just like the kings who had ruled Cambodia since the beginning of time. Now, however, he had competitors.

During the Vietnamese occupation, from 1979 to 1989, a young Khmer Rouge officer named Hun Sen was named prime minister. He was barely educated, but clever and utterly ruthless—as one might expect of a young man trained by the Khmer Rouge and then the Vietnamese military. The prime minister’s job was handed to him in 1985; he was not about to give it up.

A third competitor arose, Norodom Ranariddh, one of Sihanouk’s sons. He had led a hapless guerrilla organization, funded by the United States. Its goal was to drive the Vietnamese and their appointed government, including Hun Sen, out of the country. After Vietnam pulled out, Ranariddh coveted power too. He seemed to know or care little about governance. But as prime minister, he knew he would be able to enrich himself. Ranariddh was not as clever as Hun Sen, but he was of royal lineage, which gave him a strong advantage.

So, past examples like Germany and Japan—even South Korea—simply were not useful models for this grand experiment. In fact, the Cambodian venture was unprecedented. Even before the UN troops left, the three aspiring leaders were grappling for power, as if the UN election had never taken place. Their contest lasted many years.

The troops may have left, but the United Nations was still there, running a phalanx of charitable organizations—UNICEF, UNESCO, the World Food Program (WFP), and the rest. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the World Bank, and other major relief agencies from around the world worked alongside the UN. In fact, in time, 2,000 different donors and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) set up shop in Cambodia. As the power struggles grew heated, even violent, the government grew ever more corrupt, and the donors began pushing the leaders to live up to their promises, to serve their people.

Hun Sen, Ranariddh, and the king offered little more than lip service to those demands, but that seemed to be enough. The donors kept giving money, hundreds of millions of dollars, year after year—even as the nation headed for a military showdown to settle the power struggle once and for all.

If anyone had doubted Hun Sen’s true intentions, he made them clear during the first Paris Peace Conference, in 1989, when he declared, “You can talk about sharing power in Paris, but not in Cambodia.” Vietnam had handed him the nation in 1985. He had ruled it uncontested for seven years. He would not step down or share his throne without a fight. And now, with wide reportage of the bamboo-pole incident [in which UN representatives were turned back at a bamboo-pole roadblock], Hun Sen and everyone else realized that the UN was not to be feared. It was nothing more than a paper force. A correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, reporting from Cambodia at the time, put it this way: “The Cambodian people believed that the UN blue berets were like Jupiter threatening to unleash lightning against the Khmer Rouge. What do people see? UNTAC pulls back.”

The fact remained that the Khmer Rouge had not been defeated. The UN’s deputy military commander, Michael Loridon, a French brigadier general, urged his commander to attack and “deal with the Khmer Rouge problem once and for all.” That never happened, though the debate continued for years, until the last UN officer boarded a plane home. From the first days of the UN occupation, everyone knew that over ten years the Vietnamese army, with hundreds of thousands of troops, had never been able to defeat the Khmer Rouge. So what could the UN possibly do now?

By December 1992, more than a year after the Paris Peace Accords, the United Nations finally had its full force of soldiers and administrators in country. They were too late. Every Cambodian already knew that Jupiter had never climbed up the mountain. Pol Pot and Hun Sen were ignoring the UN and facing no penalty. But the truth was, the UN force offered a great deal more than the prospect of military reconciliation. Most Cambodians loved having them in town.

The visitors spent money, more money, and then more money still—$3 billion in all. Every staffer was given a daily living allowance of $145 on top of his salary—a year’s income for most Cambodians. Contractors had quickly put up apartment buildings and now were taking in $2,000, $3,000 a month—ridiculously high rents for Phnom Penh. Hotels were full, and new ones were under construction. Anyone who’d ever had a fleeting thought of running a restaurant scrambled to open one. Everyone with a car hired himself out as a driver. Brothels worked overtime; UN doctors treated thousands of their men and women for sexually transmitted diseases. Liquor vendors couldn’t keep up with demand; restaurant and bar owners had to replace fixtures and furniture broken in drunken brawls almost every evening. UN vehicles and equipment routinely disappeared in the night, but no one was sure whether the thieves were Cambodian or renegade UN employees.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cambodia, democracy, economics, military, NGOs, U.N., U.S.

Reassessing Blame for the Khmer Rouge

From Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 581-609:

Much of the scholarship on the Khmer Rouge was written in the first few years after their reign. And most of that was colored by the general disdain, endemic among journalists and authors, for Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and America’s misadventure in Vietnam. It’s hard to overstate the contempt so many people felt, especially Europeans. The more recent broad, scornful view of George W. Bush seems mild in comparison.

In this climate William Shawcross, a British journalist, wrote his seminal book, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia. It concluded that the American bombing of Cambodia, intended to destroy Vietcong sanctuaries there, drove the peasantry to the Khmer Rouge and ensured their victory. The liberal media (and I was a card-carrying member; I read and admired his book while flying to Cambodia in 1979) heaped adulation on Shawcross.

Now, thirty years later, with passions cooled, it is quite clear that his conclusion was wrong. The American bombing began a year before the Lon Nol coup. Sihanouk had quietly acquiesced, saying he wanted to be sure the Vietnam War did not spread into his own country. And in 1970 the Khmer Rouge was still a negligible force.

At the same time, since the late 1950s Sihanouk had spent a decade cultivating the Chinese leadership, Mao Tse-tung and Zhou Enlai. They grew to be Sihanouk admirers and friends—at a time when China had very few friends. Mao gave Sihanouk a magnificent mansion on Anti-Imperialist Street in Beijing and feted him every time he came to town—which was often. The Chinese also happened to be the Khmer Rouge’s primary patrons and advisers. Would Mao and Zhou have authorized Pol Pot to overthrow their very good friend, Prince Norodom Sihanouk?

Lon Nol was, of course, a different animal with different motivations. He gave the Americans carte blanche to bomb wherever they pleased. In 1970, shortly after Sihanouk was thrown from office, he told an American television interviewer why he thought Lon Nol was so eager to give the United States whatever it wanted: “Some officers in our army and many deputies and many members of government want to be your allies because they want your dollars. They don’t think about the destiny or the fate of our homeland.” Even angry and embittered, his words rang true. As before, he called them “more patriots for dollars than for Cambodia.”

When Lon Nol took power, the Khmer Rouge controlled little more than the areas around their jungle redoubts. More recent scholarship has suggested that the American bombing, for all its wanton, deadly results, so disrupted the nation that it delayed the Khmer Rouge’s ultimate victory until after the B-52 campaign had ended, in August 1973.

If Lon Nol had not staged his mercenary coup, most likely the Khmer Rouge would never have come to power. That is, of course, Sihanouk’s view, but other Cambodians hold it, too. Hem Heng, the Cambodian ambassador to Washington, said, “If not for the Lon Nol coup, there would be no Khmer Rouge.” But in his view, that did not let the United States off the hook. “They supported the coup,” he said. “They supported Lon Nol.” The available evidence suggests but does not necessarily prove that theory.

Years later Sihanouk told James Garrand, an Australian television documentary maker: “We cannot remake history,” but “I don’t think I made serious mistakes. You should see Mr. Lon Nol because if we have to go back to the starting point, would he still like to destroy his country by a coup d’état against Sihanouk? Or would he like to restore Sihanouk as head of state? I think your question should be put to Mr. Lon Nol.”

Sihanouk is partially correct: Lon Nol does share responsibility for what was to come. But it is beyond question that after the prince was thrown from office, by allying himself with the Khmer Rouge and urging his countrymen to join, Sihanouk condemned his people to damnation.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cambodia, China, nationalism, publishing, U.S., Vietnam, war

Reassessing Chiang Kai-shek

From Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2610-2703:

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.

1 Comment

Filed under China, Japan, nationalism, philosophy, publishing, U.S., war

Deng Xiaoping in Singapore

From Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2014), Kindle Loc. 1569-1586:

In the heart of Singapore, along the Singapore River, near to the perfectly engineered design statement that is the Asian Civilizations Museum, stands a diminutive and elegant monument to the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Deng was arguably among the greatest men of the twentieth century, because he dramatically lifted the living standards of close to a billion people throughout East Asia by introducing a version of capitalism to the Chinese economy. No man in history improved the quality of life for more people in a shorter time than Deng. But Deng elicits mixed feelings in the West. He was a ruthless authoritarian, who was the driving force behind the massacre of perhaps thousands of protesting students at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. Only in Singapore would he be so openly honored—at so appropriate a measured level, and for the right reasons. “Singapore has raised pragmatism to the level of a philosophy,” explained retired local diplomat Tommy Koh, whose idea it was to erect the monument to Deng. Singapore, he told me, stands against the beauty of ideas in favor of what works.

Standing next to the monument to Deng, I looked out at downtown Singapore: a dull grayish and blue-slate corporate park built on the scale of a megacity, the product of a meticulous mind, with sharp puzzle pieces of skyscrapers all neatly fitting together, maddening in their mathematical logic. At work was the abstract genius of the Chinese, who understand the conceptual utility of empty spaces; as opposed to the Indianized Malay mind, which is more at home in the world of thickly colored and deliciously cluttered textiles, with their floral and cartouche patterns (as evidenced by the displays in the nearby museum). But to call Singapore cold and impersonal is too easy a judgment. For everywhere there is civilizing greenery, starting with the dazzling bougainvillea bushes that line the road from the airport. Singapore is the only place in the Indo-Pacific, other than Japan, where traffic stops voluntarily for pedestrians.

At the end of history there is somnolence: that is the lesson of Singapore. Pragmatism carried to the furthest degree may not inspire the Western humanist mind, but it has been the only way for Singapore to survive as a physical speck of a city-state at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, whose location is coveted by the great powers. Singapore’s inner logic follows from its geographical vulnerability.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, economics, nationalism, philosophy, Southeast Asia, U.S.