Featured Review: Re-evaluating Chiang Kai-shek

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 21

Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek

Now at last we have a good biography of Chiang Kai-shek, one of the most important figures in modern China, but also one of the least understood and most regularly caricatured. Chiang unified his country with the Northern Expedition of 1925-29 and presided over the “Nanking decade,” a period of economic and institutional development as well as considerable freedom that was cut short by the Japanese invasion of 1937. Against that onslaught, Chiang led an indomitable resistance that was arguably China’s finest twentieth century hour, but when the struggle was completed, he gambled on an offensive war to destroy his Communist rivals for power, and lost almost everything. He retreated to Taiwan, which he ruled with an iron hand until his death in 1975, aged 87.

Chiang inspired powerful loyalty among his closest Chinese followers and had Western friends as well, not the least of whom was Henry Luce, publisher of Time magazine, but a negative tone dominated much of the commentary both during his life and subsequently in scholarship. As long as Communist victory was seen as the only real solution to China’s ills—as it was by powerful voices in politics, the media, and scholarship, from the 1930s to the mid-1970s—the anti-Communist Chiang could not but be viewed as an obstacle who, by exercising power himself, prevented its exercise by others who would do better and who, by trying to build China as he saw fit, prevented its optimal reconstruction by the Communists, whom he thwarted until 1950.

Now that the world has seen the true cost of Chinese communism, however, Chiang and the China over which he ruled has proven more and more difficult to dismiss. A general re-evaluation of pre-Communist China has been under way in China itself for a good two decades, with opinions becoming more positive. For evidence, one needs only to consider the official celebratory film for the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, Jianguo Daye with its sympathetically acted Chiang Kai-shek and attractive Kuomintang officers and officials, very unlike the sinister representations that were once the standard in the PRC.

Jay Taylor is a former China desk officer in the U.S. State Department now affiliated with Harvard, and an author of several other books already, including an excellent biography of Chiang Ching-kuo, the only son of Chiang Kai-shek. The Generalissimo—as Chiang was known to foreigners, but not to Chinese—draws on several sets of sources for its massive documentation. One is Chiang’s own diary, which provides a firm chronological and factual framework lacking in previous works; another is material from the archives of the Soviet Union and the Comintern, which makes clear just how critical Moscow was to the vicissitudes of Chiang’s career; a third is memoirs and interviews with both Chinese and Americans that have enabled Taylor to pierce the conventional historiography with a far more plausible account.

The negative picture of Chiang can to a certain extent be traced back to one man, the American General Joseph W. Stilwell, whom Roosevelt sent to advise Chiang, and who soon came to despise him. Stilwell, not called “Vinegar Joe” for nothing, referred to China’s leader as “the peanut” and found him intellectually lacking, an incompetent national leader and a defeatist when it came to Japan. Taylor shows, however, that Stilwell was himself the poor strategist: for example, now that we have all the documentation, it is clear that the American four star gravely under-estimated the Japanese in Burma (Myanmar), throwing away tens of thousands of troops in the ill-judged and failed Myitkina offensive. Chiang’s inclination to hold to the defensive was clearly prudent and would have been a better course of action. Yet to the end of his career (he was recalled in autumn 1944 and died in 1946) Stilwell had only bad things to say about his Chinese fellow-soldier—and he was not shy about saying them, for example in an influential wartime interview with Brooks Atkinson of The New Yorker. Later, the Stilwell grievances provided the fundamental orientation for another influential publication, Barbara Tuchman’s Stilwell and the American Experience in China in 1970.

A second wellspring of anti-Chiang sentiment was the unhappy American attempt, led by General George C. Marshall, to bring internal peace to post-War China by creating a coalition government between Chiang’s Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Communists—which foundered for many reasons, one of which was that, as Taylor points out, Marshall had great leverage over Chiang, who depended upon the United States for support, but none whatsoever over the Communists, who were amply supplied by Moscow. Marshall never fully understood this fact, nor did many others. The American ambassador, Leighton Stuart, for example, who had lived in China for decades as an educator and was fluent in the language, believed that ties between the Chinese Communists and Moscow were “tenuous and insignificant.”

That was far from the case. Much of 20th century Chinese history can be seen as a contest for influence between Moscow and Tokyo, with each power seeking to advance its interests by money, influence, collaborators, and military power. The Japanese side of this story has been well known since the 1930s. Perhaps Taylor’s greatest contribution is to make clear how the Soviet effort decisively affected Chiang’s career (and Mao’s) at key points.

Chiang’s rise to power began as a disciple of Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Kuomintang or Nationalist Party, who was supported by the Soviet Union. In 1923, Chiang had spent three months in the USSR consulting, seeking cooperation and addressing the executive committee of the Comintern. In June 1924, he stood beside Sun Yat-sen on the platform as the Whampoa Military Academy, of which he would become superintendent, was opened. It is here that the soon-to-be-victorious Nationalist army was trained. It was made possible by a Russian gift of 2.7 million yuan and a monthly stipend of 100,000 yuan. Weapons were provided too:  “On October 7, 1924 the first shipment of 8,000 Soviet rifles arrived, soon followed by another shipment of 15,000 rifles, along with machine guns and artillery pieces.” After Sun’s death in 1925, Whampoa cadets and Soviet armaments were the core of Chiang’s successful campaign against the Beiyang regime in Peking that culminated at the end of the decade with the establishment of a new Republic of China (ROC) government in Nanking.

Moscow, however, did not support Chiang alone. They also supported the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Stalin realized that it was too weak to take power at the time, or to serve as a credible military counterweight to Tokyo, which he feared. Initially the idea was to use the small Communist party to influence or even control the much larger Kuomintang, or to create a smaller “Red China” within the Republic.

On June 2, 1933, the Comintern agent in Shanghai reported plans to purchase an airplane that could reach and resupply Communist base areas, to be flown by an American pilot. On November 2, Moscow instructed Shanghai to buy “heavy airplanes, gasmasks and medicines” and asked whether U.S. dollars or Mexican silver dollars were required for the purchase. On November 14, Shanghai reported 3 million Mexican silver dollars received and asked for an additional U.S. $250,000.”

Soviet money and weapons strengthened Mao’s Communists as they had Sun’s and Chiang’s Nationalists. In the 1930s, the two sides came to blows, as Chiang launched a series of encirclement campaigns against the rural base areas where the Communists were steadily building a state-within-a-state. The last of these campaigns, in 1934, proved so successful that the Communists had to break through the Nationalist lines and flee to the Northwest. That flight, the celebrated “Long March” would not have been possible without chests full of those Mexican silver dollars supplied by Moscow and used to sustain the troops on their flight and bribe local militarists not to resist. When Mao’s army finally reached the small city of Baoan in the remote northwest, he told his followers that his goal was to expand their area of control until it joined up with the USSR and the Mongolian People’s Republic.

Many Japanese wanted to invade the USSR, however, and Stalin understood that if he wanted to balance Japan he needed Chiang and his Nationalist army, which is why he intervened decisively when the Generalissimo was kidnapped at Xi’an in 1936, with Mao’s full knowledge and support, when Japan was already on the march in the North. Stalin knew that without Chiang, China would be leaderless against this threat and put his foot down. Mao complied instantly and Chiang was released. As full-scale war broke out in 1937, Stalin kept the Chinese army supplied by overland convoy through Sinkiang (Xinjiang). By the time of the Battle of Nanking, Soviet planes with Chinese markings and Russian pilots were engaging the Japanese.  Without this support Chiang could never have survived; he came to power with Soviet support and the same support saw him through his most dangerous time.

When war ended, Stalin’s calculations changed. The Japanese no longer threatened. Soviet armies had occupied Manchuria in the closing days. He intended to keep that rich and strategic northeast territory under his control, something Chiang would never accept. The Communists, by contrast, might play in China the same role they were playing in Eastern Europe, presiding over client states such as East Germany. So Russian railroads and aircraft helped bring Mao’s Communist armies to Manchuria to start building a “Red China,” while delaying and denying access to Chiang. Chiang scurried diplomatically, making concessions to Moscow in the hope of being allowed at least to partition Manchuria.

Thinking he had secured acquiescence, he made the worst miscalculation of his life and threw his best troops into a battle to drive the Communists out of Manchuria. Although this enjoyed substantial success initially, it was, as Taylor makes clear, doomed. Stalin would not permit it to succeed. Soviet material and logistic support came to the Communists in Manchuria by rail across the borders (all of which were in Communist hands), by air, even by rail from North Korea, with a full 1,000 railcars being devoted to the task.

Little of this was understood at the time or even much later. Until the Soviet archives made clear the full extent of Moscow’s support, most foreign observers believed the Communist victory in China was self-sufficient, owed to massive support from the impoverished farmers: it was, as the social theorist Barrington Moore put it in 1966, “a peasant revolution.” Not so.

The Soviet Union enters the story one last time, in the early 1970s, long after Chiang had moved to Taiwan (Taylor provides an informative account of this period) when the United States, seeking to balance Moscow, opened up a dialogue with Beijing. Using declassified U.S. government documents Taylor provides a definitive account of the then ultra-secret diplomacy—with an amusing footnote. Washington took infinite pains to conceal its actions and purposes from Chiang, then an American ally. Little did they know that Chiang was being briefed all the while by Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, with whom he had a relationship of mutual trust, dating to wartime.

Brought out by Belknap Press, Harvard’s most prestigious, Taylor’s text is blemished, sad to say, by numerous errors that a good editor should have caught. Much is misspelled; for example the name of the key battle of Nomonhan (1939) when the Soviets decisively defeated the Japanese army. Just as lamentable are the errors in pinyin transliteration, so that the names of Taiwan Prime Minister Hao Bocun and Ambassador Shen Changhuan, for example, are mangled.

These maddening mistakes do not reflect fundamental misunderstandings. The narrative has survived the rocky process of publication. It provides a definitive new baseline that all subsequent historians will be required to take into consideration. Taylor’s book is a magnificent achievement, very good reading, and a sign, if I am not mistaken, of deep changes in interpretative currents.

Jay Taylor The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009) 722 + xii pages hardcover $35