Friday, January 06, 2006

Tuchman on How the Nationalists Lost China

I have read with great interest on my commute to and from work a book by a great popular historian, Barbara Tuchman, entitled Stillwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945. She is famous for books such as the Proud Tower, the Guns of August, A Distant Mirror, and the March of Folly, and deservedly so. She is one of the most exciting historians to read in terms of her written style and elegantly thought-through conclusions.

The book is about General Joseph Stilwell, a larger-than-life character consigned by history to relative obscurity, laboring away in the frustrating China theater of war during World War II (and indeed since the Marco Polo Bridge Incident). She has some pithy, brilliant observations about the Nationalists, their indifference to the common man, and some leading clues about how the Nationalists managed to lose China after the war. Many Americans are still baffled about how a well supported regime (in foreign terms) exercising authority over China for two decades, could have lost control after being on the winning side during World War II, and considered one of the main protagonists. I think the following passage from her excellent book will give you some idea:
A talk with a Kuomintang officer, General Liu, recorded with Stilwell's [who was then the US military attache in China] remarkable gift for catching character in dialogue, distilled for him the attitude of the governing class. Yes, losses had been heavy [after losing Nanking], General Liu admitted, about 600,000, but that was "really a good thing...The Chinese soldiers are all bandits, robbers, thieves and rascals. So we send them to the front and they get killed off and in that way we are eliminating our bad elements." Asked how much pay a soldier received, he replied $8 a month and "if he got any more he wouldn't fight." As to the duration of the war [this was in 1938] General Liu thought at least one year or two. By that time the Japanese would be broken financially, their soldiers would be homesick and the foreign powers would have entered the war. Actually the more ground Japan occupied the better because they would be that much more easily absorbed. "In the long run the Japanese will disappear, absorbed by the Chinese as were the Mongols and the Manchus." Asked what China would do for salt and motor fuel if blockaded, he replied that the more territory Japan occupied the smaller would be the part left to China, "so we won't have to move around so much then" and would need less gasoline.

Asked why greater use was not made of the educated class as officers, General Liu replied that "University students and graduates are all cowards. They would run. I know because I am a University man." Besides, "The Chinese learned long ago to make the lower classes do the fighting. At first the nobles fought but they soon got over that and made the people do it for them." The English used Indians to fight for them, he pointed out, the French used Moroccans and Annamites and now the Japanese were using Mongols and Manchurians.

Knowing and talking to the China of General Liu, Stilwell was not prone to see the country as fighting democracy's battle, the favorite theme of ideologists like Carlson [a Quiet American type that idealized Mao's Communists as beacons for liberty and democracy]... Though it was the fashion to say "aren't the 8th Route [Maoist guerilla unit] wonderful," Stilwell was skeptical but professionally interested...He thought the Communists' political demands for "liberation of military policy" and "mobilization of the masses" were "very vague-the usual slogans," but personally, after visiting and dining with Chou En-Lai and his entourage, found them "uniformly frank, courteous, friendly and direct. In contrast to the fur-collared, spurred KMT new-style Napoleon - all pose and bumptiousness." Handsome, cultivated and urbane, Chou En-Lai was a favorite of foreigners....Talking to these intense and energetic men, pursuers of China's old unsatisfied need of revolution and as yet uncorrupted by power, Stilwell realized the "wide chasm" between them and a man like General Liu. He felt sure that if China emerged from the war with Japan, "there will be trouble again internally."

Few could doubt it for a sense of decline in the Government and ruling society pervaded Hankow that winter [the temporary capital of the Nationalists before being moved to Chungking]. Stilwell expressed it when after the fall of Nanking he wrote of "the rotten shell of administration primarily responsible for the current debacle." In the same vein Carlson was writing to the President at this time that he was "disgusted with the attitude of the intellectual class, even the middle class. The town is filled with men and women who take no apparent interest in the war. They have no feeling of responsibility for the future of their country." When Carlson at a Chinese dinner party in Hankow offered a toast to "Old Hundred Names" [Lao Bai Xing - the common people] as bearing the brunt of the war, it fell very flat according ot Ambassador Johnson who was present. Jonson too felt that the general attitude was "Let us fight to the last drop of coolie blood" while "in the midst of it all the Soong family carries on its intrigues which sometimes disgust me completely."

The fervor of the Kuomintang's youth had passed to the Communists leaving Chungking with history's most melancholy tale: that every successful revolution puts on in time the robes of the tyrant it has deposed. Madame Chiang Kai-shek in a rare moment left a brief acknowledgement. When a number of journalists returned from Yenan with enthusiastic reports [about the Communists, who had their base there], she invited them to tea, though disbelieving, to hear what they had to say in person. After hearing their glowing tales of the Communists' integrity, idealism and sacrifice for a cause, she said it was impossible for her to believe them. Walking to the window she stared out across the river in silence for several minutes and then turned back to the room and spoke the saddest sentence of her life: "If what you tell me about them is true, then I can only say they have never known real power."
The last quote brilliant of course, because although it depicts accurately the arrogant elitist Nationalist attitudes, it also may have been a prescient prediction of later chaos during the Maoist era. In any case, I hope I have given you a taste of the way Tuchman writes movingly in describing this doomed generation of Chinese leaders, beyond caring about anything beyond their own narrow interests.

Stefan promises to start posting next week!

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