The Man Who Planned The Victory

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Desperate. China—an underdeveloped country in terms of modern transportation, communications, and industrial know-how—had already been battered by seven years of war. The eastern third of the country, including all major ports and waterways, was in enemy hands. In some localities people were subsisting at starvation levels. Even the armies were woefully ill-equipped and ill-supplied. Medical facilities were practically nonexistent. I visited a large Chinese army hospital in K’un-ming soon after my arrival and was unable to tell the living from the rows of dead. And the Japanese were again on the move with a major offensive!

What did you do?

There was not much one could do. Our means were severely limited. Morale was low. Practically all the military supplies we needed had to be airlifted into China over “the Hump” from India and Burma. To stem the Japanese advance, however, we were able to interpose two divisions of American-trained and -equipped Chinese troops by airlifting them from Burma back to China. Fortunately that saved the day.

You wore two hats in China: Commander of the U.S. forces and Chief of Staff to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. What did this latter role involve?

I was to assist Chiang by coordinating all Allied military operations in the theater. Prevailing relations between the Americans and Chinese officialdom, including the generalissimo, were strained when I arrived. There was too little communication and too little mutual understanding between the two sides. One of my first steps, therefore, was to integrate the military staffs. This meant that the heads of the various Chinese and American staff divisions—operations officers, supply officers, et cetera—were required to work out their common problems and to sit together at the daily joint staff meetings.

 

Chiang Kai-shek has often been portrayed as corrupt, inefficient, stubborn, devious, and so on. What did you think of him?

In my view Chiang has been treated very unfairly. People often forget, or are unaware, of the enormous obstacles he faced. Like all of us, he was in a sense a prisoner of his past and his circumstances. The recent history of China had left him suspicious of Westerners, even when they were formal allies. The Chinese, moreover, did not possess the military, technical, and administrative skills of the West. After we had worked together for a while, I found that Chiang sincerely wished to cooperate in the common cause.

The war with Japan finally ended in September 1945. How would you describe the view from Chungking at that moment?

The long war had disrupted much of the economy of China and placed great strains on the government and people. The Japanese surrender therefore brought a feeling of indescribable relief. It also brought hopes of a brighter future. Chiang—who was influenced by Western values and was a professed Christian—almost daily discussed with me his plans for modernizing the economy, for building schools and hospitals, for extending the rail and road nets, and so forth.

But China had been in a state of internal revolution during most of the twentieth century, and that revolution had not yet run its course. Chiang, with his Kuomintang party and Nationalist government, represented the relatively liberal, Western-oriented approach of Sun Yat-sen, who had come to power on the overthrow of the Manchu Empire in 1911. Opposing this force was another, led by Mao Tse-tung, which was determined to seize power and bring China into the modern world in accordance with Marxist-Leninist principles. The end of Japanese aggression therefore brought China not peace but a resumption of civil war.

As a commander of American forces in the area, what was your attitude toward China’s internal conflict?

U.S. policy was to avoid getting our forces caught in any crossfire between the Chinese factions. For some time after the war ended, our policy was one of continued support of the established government.

How long did that policy continue?

American attitudes toward China had undergone an understandable shift ever since it became apparent that victory over Japan was assured. With the end of that war in sight, it no longer seemed quite so important to give aid and comfort to our wartime ally on the mainland of Asia. The corruption and ineptitude of the Nationalist government were all too obvious, and these weaknesses had been played upon month after month by American soldiers as well as journalists and other observers. In contrast to the perceived shortcomings of Chiang and his government, Mao and his sturdy partisans of the back hills were depicted as noble and promising. All “progressive” forces worldwide were trumpeting the virtues of China’s “agrarian reformers.” American policy makers were affected by these currents. Hence, as the internal conflict in China intensified in the latter months of 1945, the U.S. government concluded that peace in China depended on engineering a coalition between the Nationalists and the Communists.

How did you feel about such a coalition?