Japan Strikes: 1937


The New Order confronted the United States with violation of both the integrity of China and equal opportunity in China, the two basic principles of her China policy for forty years. Once again the horrid case arose of circumstances which the country could not in conscience accept and was unwilling to use force to resist. Washington chose the middle course of protest. The New Order was declared to violate the Open Door and the Nine-Power Treaty. Japan expressed surprise that the United States had “failed to awaken to the new actualities in the Far East resulting from Japan’s successful military campaigns in China.” In response to renewed agitation in America for economic sanctions, the Japanese were reported by an experienced correspondent to “have begun to feel that the United States may prove the principal antagonist when the time comes for Japan to make a settlement with China.”


Stilwell did not stay to see the Japanese enter Hankow. He left to join Shang Chen’s headquarters at Changsha in Hunan, pivot of the new defense line. During the next two months, when the situation was in flux, he remained on the southern front, moving from place to place along with military units, hospital staffs, stranded officials, foreign colleagues and newsmen, and all the displaced flotsam that follow a defeat.

Another movement, a huge slow-motion upheaval, was relocating the working capacity of free China to the west. A steady trudging, toiling stream of people carried goods and equipment and themselves out of the area of the invader into the independent zone. Factory machinery, government records, university libraries, the contents of hospitals, arsenals, and offices, were transported in boxes slung on shoulder poles or borne on the backs of coolies or packed in sampans and pulled upstream by straining teams moving foot by foot over the rocks and roadless banks. In the age-old method for moving vessels up the rapids, the great-muscled coolies, bent double against the ropes, slowly hauled the burdens to the free land beyond the Yangtze gorges. A whole textile mill was packed into 380 junks, of which a third sank in the rapids, were raised, repacked, and started on their way again. Some factories were more than a year en route before renewing operation. Faculty and students of the universities, organized into marching sections with foraging squads, police units, and pack animals, walked to new locations in the west and southwest.

Gradually, while keeping track of Chinese divisions, reviewing events with the commanders, struggling for transportation, and trying to find out through the confusion and fog of rumor what was happening, Stilwell made his way southward through Hengyang to Kweilin in Kwangsi. Finding he would have to wait until February for the next vacancy by plane for Chungking, he managed to obtain a place in a car for the journey over the only motor road through Kweichow and over the mountains.

On December 28 in Chungking. China’s wartime capital for the next seven years, Stilwell was to have a personal meeting with Chiang Kai-shek. By now he had been authorized to return to Peiping preparatory to the end of his tour in May, and so his stay in Chungking was short, lasting only from December 19 to 31. It was enough to decide that the remote, provincial, five-hundred-year-old city with its steep streets of steps climbing up from the river, its open sewers and dank fogbound climate in winter, was a “sloppy dump.” The meeting with the Generalissimo and Mme. Chiang lasted for only fifteen apparently agreeable minutes. “Very cordial,” Stilwell recorded. “Both looked extremely well. They were quite frank. Gave me a photo and their blessing.” The signed photograph subsequently occupied a prominent place in Stilwell’s living room in Peiping, perhaps more in defiance of the Japanese than from admiration of the Generalissimo.

Summarizing his judgment of China’s leader in a G-2 report less than a month after their meeting, Stilwell wrote, “Chiang Kai-shek is directly responsible for much of the confusion that normally exists in his command.” The reason, Stilwell believed, was his suspicion of rivals. … In private notes Stilwell added, “He wanted to keep all his subordinates in the dark because he didn’t trust them. … If they all knew nothing they couldn’t very well get together and dicker.” Describing the factors that were one day to become his own frustration, he wrote that the Generalissimo “never assigned good artillery to divisions because he didn’t want to let any get away from him. … He was always thinking of what he could save for later on when perhaps his own position would be threatened.”…

On the last day of 1938 Stilwell left Chungking by air for Kunming in Yunnan, now the main air base of free China and the starting point of the Burma Road. At the Hotel du Lac he spent the evening in dinner and long talk with Chennault with no foreshadowing of the conflict between them that was to come.