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Japan Strikes: 1937
In Part Two of her new series on General Joseph W. Stilwell, Barbara W. Tuchman describes the brutal beginnings, at the Marco Polo Bridge near Peiping, of a war we would all eventually have to fight
December 1970 | Volume 22, Issue 1
The Panay touched off nothing, for when there is no will to war, war does not happen, and neither Japan nor America was ready for confrontation at this time. Alarmed at the wild exploit, the government in Tokyo apologized promptly and within ten days accepted in full American demands for indemnities. … Official American reaction was restrained. In the armed services, conscious that American naval forces were inadequate to compel the Japanese to behave, the feeling prevailed that anything that might touch off a showdown should be postponed. Public reaction insofar as it was represented by Congress was not to roar but to shrink. The House immediately took up the Ludlow Resolution, requiring a national referendum before a declaration of war could become effective. Previously its sponsor had been unable to collect the necessary number of signatures to bring the measure before a committee of the whole. Two days after the sinking of the Panay he had more than enough, and the resolution was later defeated only after heavy pressure by the administration and only by twenty-one votes.
A notable result of the Panay affair, in order to remove a further possibility of friction with the Japanese, was the withdrawal from China two months later of the 15th Infantry. Long under discussion in Washington and urged by the Army because of the tight restrictions on the regiment, it was a case, according to one American newspaper, “of doing the right thing at the wrong time.” To the tears of local women the “Can Do” troops marched out, plaved through the streets of Tientsin by the bands of the other foreign regiments and even serenaded by Japanese bugles.
Stilwell’s vinegar was at a high level during the winter in Hankow, “the bunghole of creation.” He was depressed by the climate, “raw, grey, drizzly, chill,” by China’s situation, by the endless frustrations in the way of carrying out his professional task, and by the blank incomprehension at the Washington end. The War Minister had refused permission to visit the front. … Stilwell was galled by the badgering of M.I.D., which, in the hands of a petty despot and pedantic bureaucrat, Colonel E. R. W. McCabe, pestered him with demands for daily operational reports, questioned every expense, issued orders to his staff without consulting him, made demands without relation to the battle situation or even to the normal geography of China, and informed Stilwell that it was “embarrassing to receive so little information” from him. “Bastards in Washington don’t like me,” he concluded with some truth, for there was certainly a quality of vendetta in McCabe’s treatment, although he was hounding other attachés too. He kept a little black book called his “SOB book” in which to record his dislikes.
In Consul Robert Jarvis’ apartment, where Stil well had found living quarters, he felt at ease—“he and I talk the same language. …” He had forgiven Ambassador Johnson, who was always kind, pleasant, ready to talk and to call Stilwell in when visiting personages came. With the government now preparing to withdraw to Chungking and Johnson under instruction to go when they did, he left Stilwell free to decide for himself and thus rated along withjarvis in the category of “good egg.”…
Friends and cordial hours were part of his life, too. Some of the Chinese, especially the mayor, were “delightful,” and he enjoyed a reunion with Feng Yu-hsiang, his road-building client of fifteen years ago, who was in town to join the “dicker” over reorganizing the government to let in the Reds. “The old boy looks well and hopeful. Says they can go on for six months.” Xor were Stilwell’s prejudices inflexible. “The pleasantest people in town are the British Navy people,” he reported astonishingly. Invited to lunch by their Admiral Crabbe, he “enjoyed it” and pronounced his hosts “good eggs. … The French are okay too.” Even the “limey consul” was a good egg. He found his most congenial company among certain of the journalists, usually the more venturesome free lances sympathetic to revolutionary China who, like Carlson, roamed the country “from the heart.” Agnes Smedley and Jack Beiden were of this company. Beiden especially, a great romantic and idealist aged twenty-eight, moody, driven, alternately gay and despondent, “a sad, ragged, torn, incredible character” as a friend described him, became a close companion and valued informant.
In January, 1938, Stilwell finally broke through obstructions, and he was able to go on the first of many journeys that over the next year and a half were to take him to embattled areas in many parts of China. On a bitterly cold trip through Kiangsi and Hunan he found the active front had melted away but there was no peace talk anywhere in the area. The provincial governors talked in terms of three years’ resistance and had begun training programs in guerrilla tactics. The Chinese were sold on guerrilla warfare, Stilwell noted, but munitions and equipment would be a serious problem. When asked by a Chinese officer what his own strategy would be, his reply, “Make use of numbers and attack,” was not welcomed.