The Man Who Planned The Victory

PrintPrintEmailEmail

In 1936 the Germans permitted a captain of the U.S. Army to attend their War College as an exchange student. What he learned there helped him develop the master strategy with which the Allies won the war. At eighty-six, one of the last of the commanders looks back.

 

GEN. ALBERT C. Wedemeyer, a native of Omaha, Nebraska, graduated from West Point in 1919. In 1936 the Army sent Wedemeyer, then a captain, to Berlin as an exchange student at the German War College. The information he brought back from Berlin soon proved useful to our own government. Assigned to the War Department at the request of the Chief of Staff, Gen. George C. Marshall, Wedemeyer was given the task of preparing what came to be known as the Victory Plan. That 1941 document established the strategic framework for American participation in a global war and laid the foundation for war mobilization.

Early in 1942 Wedemeyer, by then a lieutenant colonel, helped develop an American plan for the defeat of the Axis in Europe. The U.S. strategy called for a rapid buildup of Allied air and ground strength in the British Isles, a progressively intensified campaign of attrition by air, against the Continent, a cross-Channel invasion of France in the summer of 1943, and a final drive into the heartland of Central Europe.

In 1943 Wedemeyer, now a major general, was sent to New Delhi as a Deputy Chief of Staff in the Allied Command in Southeast Asia under Mountbatten. He helped plan and coordinate Allied efforts against the Japanese in India and Burma. Late in 1944 Wedemeyer left India for China, where he succeeded Gen. “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell in the dual role of commander of U.S. forces and Chief of Staff to Chiang Kai-shek. During the final year of the war he worked hard to ensure that all Allied forces in China exerted utmost pressure against the Japanese.

After the war Wedemeyer returned to the Far East as a special fact-finding ambassador for President Truman in 1947. The long-unpublished report of his 1947 mission subsequently became a major focus of controversy in the bitter foreign policy debates of the 1950s.

Wedemeyer requested retirement from active service in 1951. He then pursued a career in industrial management in New York City and in 1958 published a memoir of his career. For the past twenty years he and Mrs. Wedemeyer have lived at Friends Advice—a country estate some thirty miles from Washington, D.C.—where this interview took place.

How did it happen that you became a soldier?

Well, for a long time in my youth I planned to become a doctor. Surgery interested me, and in high school I studied chemistry, biology, Latin, German, and all those subjects one needed for a career in medicine. Then the World War came along, and the Mexican border affair in 1916, and like most of the young men of the time, I became rather concerned about military affairs. I wanted to do my part like the older boys, including my brother who had joined the Nebraska National Guard. So when Sen. George Norris gave me a chance to compete for West Point, I jumped at it.

Life in the Army of the 1920s and 1980s is often depicted as rather dull. Did you find it so?

On the whole I did not. Although I was a lieutenant for seventeen years, there was more than enough to do. I enjoyed training and working with the men on post or in bivouac. I liked marksmanship and riding. There were opportunities for considerable travel at home and abroad. All in all, I look back on those years as a happy and rewarding time.

I must confess that I got off to a questionable start as an officer, however, down at Fort Benning, Georgia, right after graduation from West Point. Although I had seldom, if ever, touched a drop of alcoholic beverages at the time, I returned one night to camp quite intoxicated and very boisterous. The noise and high spirits disturbed a stuffy senior officer, and he brought charges against me. A court-martial in those days was a very serious matter, and I was sure my career in the Army was ruined.

What happened?

I was punished with six months of restriction to the limits of the post plus deduction from pay for a like period. My superiors apparently thought that enough of a lesson. It was!

Duty tours in the Far East and other faraway places must have been alluring.

Yes indeed. And on my first voyage to the Far East, in 1923,1 met an attractive young lady, a so-called Army brat. She was traveling with her parents to the Philippines, where her father—a colonel (an exalted rank in the old Army)—was to take command of a regiment on Corregidor. It did not take Elizabeth Dade Embick and myself long to arrange for our future together on a permanent basis, but it did take a year and three anxious visits to her home on Corregidor—I was stationed on the mainland near Manila—before I mustered the courage to approach her father. Getting a prospective father-in-law’s permission to marry his daughter was still the expected practice.

I told Marshall the German army was determined never again to get bogged down in trench warfare.

In those early years you had tours of duty in the Philippines and in Washington, D.C., and finally you sailed for China to join the 15th U.S. Infantry in Tientsin.

Yes, in 1929. China was in turmoil at that time, as it had been—and would remain—for many years. For us Westerners, however, life could hardly have been more pleasant. Mrs. Wedemeyer and I lived in a comfortable house in the British Concession with our two small sons. Excellent help was available at prices even lieutenants could afford. My wife and I tried at this time to learn some Mandarin, although I had turned down an earlier opportunity to specialize in the language. We made it a point to meet some of our Chinese neighbors and local notables. Among these were the philosopher Lin Yutang and the scholar Wellington Koo.

You returned home in 1934 to attend the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth. Then you went off to the German War College in Berlin for two years. How did that come about?

The commandant at Leavenworth recommended me on the basis of my work there. Also, my record indicated that I had a smattering of high school German. Under terms of an intergovernmental reciprocal agreement, one American officer was admitted to the Kriegsakademie each year, and a German officer was accorded the privilege of attending one of our service schools.

How did you get along with your high school German?

I had to struggle during the early months in Berlin, because I lacked confidence in speaking and understanding the language. I could read German pretty well. There were times when I considered asking the War Department to replace me with someone more fluent. But by Christmastime my problem with the language eased considerably.

When you arrived in Germany in the fall of 1936, the Nazis had been in power for some years. Their rearmament program was already well advanced, and Hitler already had reoccupied the Rhineland. What was the atmosphere like at the Kriegsakademie?

A spirit of urgency prevailed. The schedule was strenuous. The courses were well organized and well taught. The pedagogy, I thought, was better than that at Leavenworth. I was impressed with the practicality and thoroughness of the purely military work, as well as with the intellectual breadth of the curriculum.

How were you received as an American?

The Germans—faculty and students alike—accepted the foreign officers as military professionals. There were only a few lectures from which foreigners were excluded on grounds of security.

Were domestic German politics or current international tensions discussed?

Sensitive issues, including politics, certainly were not discussed, so far as I was aware, either in the classroom or informally between the Germans and the foreign students. My German classmates, some of whom became good friends, understandably refrained from criticizing their government or raising political issues in private conversations.

One could not fail, however, to sense the strained relations that existed between the German military and the Nazis’ quasi-military units. Of course, no German in the military service was permitted to join the Nazi party. You may recall that these tensions erupted in the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler and accomplish the overthrow of his government. The conspiracy was widespread throughout the Army and Navy. It included many senior officers, some (such as one-time Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ludwig Beck) in key positions. Two of my War College classmates—Capt. Claus von Stauffenberg and Capt. Wessel Freitag von Loringhoven—played important roles. The assassination attempt was unsuccessful. Both these officers—along with members of their families and scores of others—were arrested. Many were tortured and executed by the Nazis.

What were the most important lessons you brought back from the Kriegsakademie?

General Marshall asked me almost that same question when I came home in 1938. He was then head of the War Plans Division of the War Department General Staff. I told him that the German army was determined never again to get bogged down in trench warfare in the manner of 1914–18. Their emphasis definitely was on mobility and aggressiveness. Their organization, doctrine, equipment, and training were all aimed at revolutionizing the tempo of the battlefield. They envisioned not simply envelopments in the traditional sense but deep turning movements aimed at objectives far behind enemy lines. Concentrated armored forces were to serve as “nutcrackers.” These would be closely followed by large units of mechanized infantry. The new Stuka dive bombers were now to deliver much of the heavy fire support traditionally provided by long-range artillery. These principles of Blitzkrieg were put to dramatic use throughout World War II, and with particular success in the early campaigns against Poland, Russia, and Western Europe.

 

Were there any other lessons you learned?

I learned the importance of the economic factor in war—the vital importance of raw materials and productive capacity, for example, and the ways in which manpower is related to war potential. I was impressed with the emphasis on the classical doctrine enunciated by Clausewitz and other strategists that war was the continuation of politics by other means—that the ends of war were not slaughter and destruction per se, but the achievement of rational goals. Strategy, properly conceived, thus seemed to me to require a transcendence of the narrowly military perspectives that the term traditionally had implied. Strategy required a systematic consideration and use of all the so-called instruments of policy—political, economic, psychological, et cetera, as well as military—in pursuing national objectives. Indeed, the nonmilitary factors deserved unequivocal priority over the military, the latter to be employed only as the last resort.

Shortly after you returned home and submitted your report on the Kriegsakademie experience to the War Department, you ended up serving in the War Department yourself.

Yes, in 1940 General Marshall, who was by now Chief of Staff, assigned me to duty in the War Plans Division of the General Staff.

When did you get started on the Victory Plan?

Well, World War II had begun in Europe in September 1939, and a long, bitter debate had gone on in America over what our role should be. Most Americans of course wanted to stay out of war, but opinions were terribly mixed as to just what this war was all about, and whether or not we ought to get involved, and, if so, when and on what terms.

Where did you stand on those issues?

World War I had demonstrated the way in which self-serving foreign propaganda could and did strongly influence American policies and actions. I was therefore leery about getting the United States involved in still another European conflagration unless it was clear that our national security and interests demanded it.

Tell me about the Victory Plan.

After France fell in June 1940, American public opinion seemed to shift pretty solidly to support a major buildup of our military strength. In succeeding months Congress passed a series of large defense appropriations for an everexpanding rearmament program. The need for a working hypothesis—an agreed-upon contingency plan that would provide a basis for coordinating and judging all this activity—eventually became apparent. Hence, in the early summer of 1941, President Roosevelt directed the Secretaries of War and Navy to prepare a mobilization plan that would provide an estimate of the military forces that would be needed to ensure the defeat of any or all of our potential enemies. This estimate would of necessity include optional concepts of global deployments in Europe, the Far East, and elsewhere. The President’s directive soon trickled down to my desk in War Plans, and I was authorized to call upon any or all officials and agencies in our government for information and advice. I collected mountains of data. The fundamental assumptions on which the whole study had to be based, however, seemed almost as elusive as the philosopher’s stone. If we were to enter the war, what would be our objectives? What would be our aims?

How did you go about answering those questions?

To determine the basic industrial resources that were needed (raw materials, factories, and so forth), it was necessary to estimate both the gross quantities of munitions that were required (planes, ships, tanks, etc.) and the dates by which those items had to be ready. To determine these quantities and schedules, it was necessary to assume a lot about the nature of the war—what were the enemy capabilities; where would we be fighting and on how many fronts; what would our broad scheme of maneuver be; that sort of thing. And to envision the nature of a likely war in this sense, one also had to reflect seriously on war aims and political goals. Needless to say, at a time when merely discussing such things was often interpreted as plotting war, few of the harassed senior officials in Washington were in a position to offer much guidance.

Everything in war is risky, and we had gone to no end of trouble in assessing those risks.

How did you proceed?

I assumed that we should make the maximum effort of which the country was capable. Even if a halfhearted effort were theoretically enough to win, it appeared logical that an all-out effort would win more quickly and with less ultimate cost in lives and resources. So, I first asked, Is there a key limiting factor from which one can work backward in these complicated and interrelated calculations? Studies of mobilization in past wars seemed to indicate that about 10 percent of a nation’s population could be placed under arms while still leaving sufficient manpower to produce the weapons, grow the food, administer the affairs of government, and keep the home fires burning. So I assumed that 10 percent of the 1940 U.S. population—which, I believe, was around 140 million—would be made available. That totaled about 14 million. I then allocated those 14 million among the armed services on the basis of estimates prepared by the Army, the Army Air Force, and the Navy.

How accurate did those figures prove to be?

Pretty darned accurate. Considering everyone who served in uniform at one time or another during World War II, I believe the total amounted to some 13 million. Our estimates were not correct in every category, however. In the effort to provide strong ground forces with great mobility and firepower, we estimated armored and mechanized divisions far in excess of the number that could possibly be maneuvered. Had we organized as suggested in the original Victory Plan, the mobility we sought would paradoxically have been sacrificed. Imagine a traffic jam of thousands of bumper-to-bumper vehicles on the battlefield!

Although war with the Axis came first in the Pacific area, didn’t the United States give first priority to Europe, in accordance with previous commitments?

By and large, yes, although Americans were mad as hell at the Japanese and wanted to fight them immediately. Revenge was the motive. President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill directed, nonetheless, that Germany be defeated first. This meant that the war in the Pacific had to be restricted for the time being to strategically defensive operations, while the major effort was made in Europe. Building on the Victory Plan and other studies, the military staffs in Washington worked day and night to hammer out something specific. By April 1942 the American planners had developed some pretty firm ideas.

What were they?

We concluded that the Allies ought to strike at the industrial heart of Germany—the vulnerable source of her war-making potential—as soon as we could muster the strength to secure a lodgment on the Continent and exploit it. This implied careful conservation of our strength. It meant resisting the inevitable temptations to make ourselves comfortably secure here, there, and everywhere. It meant resisting the temptation to chase off after secondary objectives and, in the process, dissipate resources. Careful studies had convinced us that our best bet lay in an invasion of the Channel coast of France from the British Isles in the early summer of 1943. This seemed the course that promised a decisive victory at the least cost in time, casualties, and treasure.

Amphibious operations are inherently hazardous. Given the formidable capabilities of the German forces, the fact that Allied war production and troop mobilization would not yet have reached their peaks, and many other uncertainties—was not this plan awfully risky?

Everything in war is risky, and we had gone to no end of trouble in assessing those risks. Remember that in the winter of 1942–43 the bulk of the German ground and air forces were committed—perhaps irretrievably—far to the east in Soviet territory. Remember, too, that the heavy defenses along the coast of Western Europe—the Atlantic Wall—were not put in place until late 1943 and 1944.

But the invasion did not take place until June of 1944. What happened?

 

The Allies first had to agree on a broad scheme of maneuver, and on the employment of available forces. In April 1942, after we Americans got our plans worked out, I accompanied General Marshall and Harry Hopkins (President Roosevelt’s personal representative) on a trip to London to present our ideas to the British. That was quite a trip. We traveled under assumed names, for security reasons, in a large, four-engined flying boat that was routed by way of Bermuda to Northern Ireland. We made three formal presentations of our plans to military and political leaders, the last to the British War Cabinet. There was a lot of polite comment and questioning. On the whole we felt that the British had accepted our general proposals, or at least had found them compatible with their thinking. Prime Minister Churchill invited us out to his country home for the weekend and was very cordial.

Was this your first contact with Churchill?

It was my first real contact, and I found him a formidable personality. A physical, intellectual, and spiritual bulwark, if ever there was one. He was one of the few men in high position in whose presence I felt real trepidation when I had occasion (as I did later on) to stand up and differ with him. His mind was marvelously stocked with all sorts of knowledge and experience. He was a man of strong convictions, superbly articulate, powerfully persuasive. One didn’t challenge him lightly. On this occasion, however, we talked pleasantly after dinner of strategic plans, mobilization problems in the United States, and the Nazi leaders.

You mention standing up to Churchill and differing with him.

There were several occasions on which circumstances required me to disagree with the great man face-to-face. The first of these came during the summer following our April mission to London. It had become clear by then that the British had accepted the American proposals for a buildup and cross-Channel invasion in 1943 only “with tongue in cheek,” as General Marshall had commented to me on our flight home. So in June 1942 a series of high-level British visitors arrived in Washington to promote their own views and plans. The charming Lord Louis Mountbatten first spent considerable time closeted with President Roosevelt warning of the dangers of a too-early invasion. Mr. Churchill himself came next. Late one night General Marshall called me to the White House, where he and other members of the Combined Chiefs of Staff were assembled with the President and the prime minister. There was a large colored map of the European-Mediterranean area on the wall. The prime minister, wearing the onepiece jumpsuit for which he was famous, took the floor. Mustering all his eloquence, he stressed the importance of squeezing Rommel out of North Africa, of regaining full control of the Mediterranean, of getting Allied land forces into major action in 1942, of meeting Soviet demands for a Second Front. I recall his making a great sweeping gesture across the map, moving downward from the British Isles toward Gilbraltar, eastward along the breadth of North Africa, back across the Mediterranean, and up through the Balkans into Central Europe. It was a stunning performance.

President Roosevelt then turned to General Marshall. “George,” he said to him, “what do you have to say?”

“One of my planners is present,” the general replied, “and with your permission I will ask him to comment.” So there I was, unexpectedly called upon to criticize the prime minister’s position and argue the alternate case for a cross-Channel invasion in 1943!

What did you do?

I cleared my throat and waded into the subject. Fortunately I was pretty well rehearsed because I had been living with our plans day and night for months and had personally studied every mile of the European littoral from Norway to Turkey in search of suitable landing sites. I remember stressing the logistical and tactical difficulties of invading Europe through the Balkans as well as the strategic disadvantages of such operations. General Marshall seemed satisfied, even pleased, and I thought President Roosevelt had a mischievous twinkle in his eye—as if he enjoyed the confrontation. In the end, of course, Mr. Churchill won, for the cross-Channel invasion eventually was delayed for a full year—from 1943 to 1944. By then, in my opinion, the operation took place in àprofoundly changed environment, and the historic opportunity to strike a decisive, timely blow on the Continent had been lost.

Does this mean you were opposed to the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa in November 1942?

Definitely. I did everything I could to point out the adverse implications of that operation. Basically it was a diversionary move into a nondecisive theater. It would tie down large numbers of troops and consume vast quantities of supplies, shipping, and everything else for many months to come. Even worse, once our positions in North Africa were secure, plausible arguments might be made for launching further operations in the Mediterranean area—into Sicily and Italy, for example, or even into the Balkans or the Near East. And that is exactly what happened. Resources that should have been sequestered in the British Isles for the main blow were diverted to indecisive operations. In agreeing to launch the North African expedition and follow-up operations in the Mediterranean, President Roosevelt departed from the professional advice of his military advisers, including Secretary of War Stimson. I have always felt that this unfortunate shift was a tribute to the extraordinary persuasive powers of Churchill.

Churchill seemed obsessed with the possibilities of moving through the Balkans—the “soft underbelly.”

The British obviously had different views of European strategy. How did you perceive those?

I often described their general warmaking concept as “periphery pecking.” It emphasized attrition against Festung Europa by air attack, naval blockade, and harassing operations at various points around the perimeter of the Continent, from Norway to the Caucasus. Churchill seemed obsessed with the possibilities of moving up through the Balkans—the “soft underbelly” of Europe, he called it—but it really wasn’t so soft. He constantly stressed the dangers of a massive assault across the Channel into France. He would scowl ominously as he predicted that the English Channel would run red with blood or be filled with Allied corpses. But I believe an invasion in 1943 would have succeeded, that it would have shortened the war in Europe, and that it would have reduced total Allied casualties and material costs. Most importantly, Anglo-American forces would have been in control of most of Central as well as Western Europe at war’s end. The map of Europe would today be colored quite differently. Who would argue that that would not be a good thing?

Speculating on “what might have been” is always a dubious business, especially when one is dealing with world wars. Don’t you agree?

Of course we can’t go back and replay vast historical events, so we never really can know “what might have been” if we had played our cards differently. But we certainly can look back and see what alternate courses were open to us and trace out the likely consequences of taking one of those alternates. How else can we ever understand the past —or learn anything from it for future use? Incidentally, several historians in Britain and the United States have recently considered these questions and concluded that an Allied invasion of the Continent in 1943 was indeed feasible and that it likely would have resulted in an earlier victory and a more secure peace. This corroborates an opinion expressed to me in 1946 by Gen. Franz Halder, who had been Chief of Staff of the German army during the early years of the war.

When D-day eventually came, you were in New Delhi—half a world removed from the beaches of Normandy and the corridors of the Pentagon. I have heard it said that you were eased out of Washington, perhaps at British suggestion, because your independence made you unmanageable. You continued to press strongly for the early Channel crossing, for example, and thus were seen as inconvenient to have so close to America’s high command.

There were rumors in Washington to that effect at the time. I discounted them because I could not believe that Mr. Churchill would attempt to influence Allied strategy in such a manner. Since the war, however, much evidence has come to light suggesting he was indeed capable of such maneuvers.

Were you pleased at the thought of going out to the new Allied Southeast Asia Command?

I would have preferred combat duty or, if not that, continued assignment to my challenging job in War Plans. General Marshall had frequently mentioned the possibility of my commanding an armored or an airborne division. My appetite for action had been stirred, too, by a recent visit to General Patton’s army during the invasion of Sicily.

You said you had met Admiral Mountbatten before you reported to his command at SEAC.

Yes, on the trip to London in April 1942. He was handsome and personable, as everyone knew, and seemed to be caught up in his work and very much on top of it. I knew of his connections with the Royal Family, and of Churchill’s high regard for him, so I confess that I kept an open mind as to whether he had “made it” on his own. But my doubts proved unfounded. Mountbatten was first-rate in every respect. He did a remarkable job of holding together all the various forces that were resisting the Japanese in that part of the world. There were tensions among the Allies, problems with the natives, inter-service rivalries, prima donnas—to say nothing of the fact that we were operating almost at the end of the global pipeline, under conditions of terrain and climate that were extremely difficult, against an ingenious and ruthless enemy. Surmounting all of this, the “Supremo”—as the admiral came to be known by all ranks—brought a sense of common purpose to the command. He was fair-minded and diplomatic and had a flair for leadership.

There must have been some disagreements between you and him?

I visited a large Chinese army hospital and was unable to tell the living from the rows of dead.

I can’t really recall any during my year in SEAC. We were on the same team, working toward the same goals, under the same instructions from the Combined Chiefs of Staff. I understand that a few of the Americans serving with General Stilwell in India thought I was too “pro-British.”

Later, when I was transferred to China, I found myself working for a radically different Allied commander —Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek- under a different set of instructions from Washington. Frictions inevitably developed under these circumstances between the two geographically contiguous commands—SEAC and the China theater (which included French Indo-china). I continued, nonetheless, to find Admiral Mountbatten a cooperative ally and an understanding friend.

Several recent historians and biographers have blown out of all proportion the issues that arose between our respective commands. It has even been suggested that my personal friendship with Mountbatten was strained by suspicions of double-dealing, but all I know is that our friendship survived in all its warmth until his tragic death in 1979.

China has often been described as a graveyard for Western diplomats and soldiers—or at least for their reputations. Did you feel any apprehension as you flew over the Himalayas from India to assume command of the China theater?

There wasn’t much time for such reflection. The change came with almost no warning when General Stilwell was called home, and the U.S. China-Burma-India theater was split up into Burma-India and China theaters. My directive from the President required me to keep China afloat and in the war. The hard-pressed and terribly suffering Chinese were pinning down approximately one million Japanese who might otherwise have been transferred to the Philippines or elsewhere to oppose MacArthur or Nimitz.

What was the situation when you arrived in China?

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?

My wartime experiences with the Communists, including my personal acquaintance with Mao and Chou En-lai, who had occasionally been my guests in Chungking, had convinced me that these men were not simple “agrarian reformers.” They were thoroughly imbued with Marxist-Leninist ideology and committed to revolution. They would accept coalition as a step toward absolute power but had no intention whatsoever of sharing power in a liberal democratic state. The Nationalists knew this and had no intention of voluntarily relinquishing power to their mortal enemies. Hopes for a foreseeable solution to the war through coalition therefore seemed to me an unrealistic basis for U.S. policy.

Events of the months following Japan’s surrender confirmed these views. With the collapse of Japanese authority in Manchuria and North China, a scramble ensued to fill the vacuum. The Soviet Union—which had joined in the war against Japan in its closing days—rushed into Manchuria to assert the rights it had been granted (at China’s expense) by President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill at the Yalta Conference. It soon became clear that the Soviets were throwing their unequivocal support to the Chinese Communists in violation of their recent treaty agreements with Chiang. Within the limits of my authority and available resources, I continued to aid the Nationalist government in disarming the Japanese and in moving Nationalist forces up to facilitate the generalissimo’s reassertion of control over north and east China.

And this was the point at which your old boss, General Marshall, came out to China to negotiate a coalition of the Nationalists and Communists?

My meetings with Mao and Chou En-lai convinced me they were not simple “agrarian reformers.”

I met General Marshall at the airport in Shanghai in December 1945. He showed me his directive from the President, and I expressed the view that the job he had been given could not be done. I explained that the Nationalists had most of the power in China and were not prepared to relinquish one iota of it. The Communists, with the strong support of Moscow, were determined to seize power and were not prepared to compromise in any way.

How did General Marshall react?

For the first time in our long relationship, he seemed displeased. “Well,” he replied, “it will work, Wedemeyer, and you are going to help me.” I was taken aback. I emphasized that I was prepared to do everything in my power to help him, as I always had, and had already made two of my best staff officers available for that purpose. The general had always encouraged me to speak up and to give him my full and honest views. But now it appeared that the rules had changed.

In spite of this strain in your relationship, General Marshall nonetheless suggested—later on —that you be made U.S. Ambassador to China.

That was in the spring of 1946, when the general was hard at work in China on his mission of engineering the coalition. I had come home in April to have some surgery done, and he recommended to Washington that I return to China to replace Ambassador Patrick Hurley, who had resigned. General Marshall changed his mind on that, however, when news of the proposed appointment leaked and the Chinese Communists voiced loud objections on the ground that I would not be impartial as between them and the Nationalists.

You did not go back to China then, in 1946. But you did return in 1947?

Yes, and much water had gone over the dam in the meantime. General Marshall had returned to the United States late in 1946, frustrated in his efforts to bring the warring factions together, and reportedly feeling “a plague on both their houses.” U.S. aid to the Nationalists had dwindled, even as we pressured them to negotiate. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, continued to give open and unreserved support to the Chinese Communists. General Marshall became Secretary of State in January of 1947—and, incidentally, renewed the suggestion that I return to China as ambassador, which I declined. As the months wore on, China policy became an increasingly sharp issue in American politics. It was in these circumstances that I was asked —in July of 1947—to return to the Far East as a special representative of President Truman and to take a fresh look at the situation.

Were there any hopeful signs?

There was little cause for optimism. The situation had deteriorated drastically in China during the previous year. The Communists had gained strength, the morale of the Nationalist government had plummeted, the economy was a shambles. It seemed quite clear that, without substantial aid, the Nationalist government would have no chance of holding out indefinitely. It was questionable, however, whether any aid we might have decided to send them at that late date could be delivered, assimilated, and used.

So what did you recommend that the United States do?

In brief, I recommended in my report to the President that the United States commit itself at once to a program of selective economic and military aid to the Nationalist government. To prevent the Soviet Union from consolidating a permanent grip over Manchuria, I also recommended that we urge the United Nations, in accordance with the charter, to establish a five-power trusteeship over that area.

Were you proposing that the United States take sides in a civil war—and risk getting hogged down militarily?

There was risk only if we were stupid enough to commit ourselves unilaterally in unwise ways. I did not and would under no circumstances have proposed the use of U.S. troops on the mainland of Asia in this situation. We made a serious mistake in this respect later in Vietnam

Would you never favor intervention abroad with U.S. military forces?

I am not saying that at all. I do believe situations arise in which the United States should act militarily against aggressors and terrorists who disturb international peace. This should seldom, if ever, be undertaken, however, except in concert with other, like-minded peoples. And occasions for military intervention certainly can be reduced if our foreign policies are farsighted, consistent, and energetic.

Did official Washington like your 1947 report?

Apparently not. I expected to be called in for discussions of the crisis with the Secretary of State or the President. But nothing happened. The government adopted a passive “wait and see” or “let the dust settle” policy with respect to China. I was disappointed and disillusioned that the State Department failed to take any steps at the United Nations respecting my proposal for a trusteeship over Manchuria. My report was quietly buried. It was released to the public only after the passage of a couple of years—and in the wake of the furor that arose when the Communists took over the mainland.

The Communist takeover in China wasn’t inevitable. I would have given it the old college try.

Do you believe that your 1947 recommendations, if adopted, would have made a difference in the outcome in China?

Perhaps things already were too far gone in 1947, but I’m not so sure. Certainly if we had acted promptly in 1945, right after the war ended, our chances of affecting events there would have been far brighter. There was nothing “inevitable” about the Communist takeover in China. I certainly would have given it the old college try. The stakes were big , very big. Imagine—just imagine—what the course of world history since 1949 might have been like had China remained friendly to the West. No war in Korea? No war in Vietnam?

General, as you look back on the history of your time, what thoughts predominate?

I have a troubled sense of the futility that has marked so much of our international experience. Think of the wars and crises that have wracked the world in this century! We Americans tend to get involved quite blindly, with little real understanding of ends or thought of consequences. We plunge emotionally into conflicts, lose thousands of lives, spend billions of dollars, help wreak enormous damage on the world and its peoples. Then we go back and spend more billions trying to put things together again. What an inane cycle! And look at what happened after World War II: we destroyed one set of tyrants only to build up another! We “won” that war only in a limited military sense.

What can or should be done?

Americans simply must become more forehanded and consistent in the way we manage our public affairs. As populations grow and the struggle for space and resources becomes more intense, a lot of heat is generated. We can’t afford simply to sit back, let events take their course, and jump in with a military solution when a crisis gets out of hand. There are so many ways in which the course of events can be influenced without the use or threat of force. Economic, diplomatic, cultural, psychological, and other means are available in limitless variety. If all these “instruments of national policy” are employed in a timely, coordinated, and imaginative way, in accordance with a reasonably steady game plan, there is good reason to hope for progress toward a better world without the scourge of war.

I guess you are saying that we should all become strategists—in the broader sense of that term?

Precisely!