A Yankee Among The War Lords

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This is the beginning of a three-part series by Barbara W. Tuchman on the encounter of two giant nations, a story whose ending is not yet known. Her theme, she writes, “is the relation of America to China, in a larger sense to Asia. The vehicle of the theme is the career of General Joseph W. Stilwell. Why Stilwell? Because he combined a career focused on China with background and character that were quintessentially American; because his connection with China spanned the period that shaped the present from the dramatic opening moment of 1911, year of the revolution, to 1944, decisive year in the decline of the Nationalist government; because his service in the intervening years was a prism of the times—as language officer from 1920 to 1923 in the time of the war lords, as officer of the 15th Infantry in Tientsin from 1926 to 1929 at the time of the rise to power of Chiang Kai-shek, as military attaché from 1935 lo 1939 at the time of the Japanese invasion, as theater commander in World War II; because in the final and critical years of this period he was the most important figure in the Sino-Amencan relationship. Impatient, acid, impolitic, he was not the ideal man for the role. But in knowledge of the language and country, friendship for the people, belief and persistence in his task—combined with America ‘s power at his disposal—he personified the strongest endeavor and, as it was to prove, the tragic limits of his country’s experience in Asia. …”

Joseph Warren Stilwell—Warren to his family, Vinegar Joe to the men he fought with in China and Burma—came of a prosperous family of early American background; he graduated from West Point m 1904, number thirty-two in a class of 124. His first real military experience took place in operations against the remaining guerrillas in the Philippines in the early 1900’s. In World War I he served in France as a staff officer in the intelligence section, emerging with the D.S.M. for his part in planning the attack on Saint-Mihiel.

As the Army returned to the peacetime doldrums and Stilwell reverted, like many with temporary ranks, from colonel to captain, he obtained an appointment in 1919 as the first Army language officer for China. The language officer program was intended to tram a body of officers as a source of information about the Far East. And in this fashion, although he did not realize it at the time, Stilwell ‘s future career was sealed to the Far East. After a year of language training in California he found himself on the way to China in 1920. It was a China that was making frontpage news in American newspapers.

Headlines flared the “Rape of Shantung,” the “Crime of Shantung,” the “Shame of Shantung,” and various other heated pejoratives by which senatorial opponents of the Versailles Treaty were excoriating the award to Japan—instead of restoration to China—of the former German leasehold and economic concessions in the Shantung Peninsula. The senators were not so much concerned with upholding China’s claims as with defeating the League of Nations. Since President Wilson had made the League inseparable from the peace treaty, the Senate was obliged to defeat the treaty and for this purpose had fastened on Shantung as its “outstanding iniquity.” So it was that the fate of that remote peninsula became the focus, however artificial, of a tremendous struggle in American politics, with historic effect on both America and China. Besides aiding American rejection of the League, the issue gave Americans a sense of guilt about China, and it gave Chinese a new injection of nationalism that revived the failing and dispirited Kuomintang, preserving it for eventual power.

The catalyst of these developments was Japan. Having watched imperialism endow the Western nations with wealth and power, Japan was determined to emulate the process and become, in the words of Count Okuma, premier in 1914, one of the world’s “governing nations.” China, appearing senile and beyond salvation, was marked for the role of first colony. The chief obstacle in the way was not China herself but the other powers. As soon as they turned upon each other in 1914, Japan, entering the war on the side of the Allies, took the opportunity to seize Germany’s leased territory with its railroad and other concessions on the strategic Shantung Peninsula. As her further contribution to the Allied war effort, she also took from Germany the Marshall, Mariana, and Caroline islands in the Pacific, placing herself across America’s road to the Philippines. …

Too disorganized and disunited to resist Japan, China fell prey to the rival ambitions and private armies of the tuchuns , translated rather too grandly in English as “war lords.” Some were able governors and predators combined, others ignorant ex-bandits and adventurers tossed to the top in the general broil. Appointed military governor of a province by the nominal government in Peking, either in recognition of existing control or in consideration for support, the tuchun furnished and paid—or failed to pay—his own military forces. Chinese soldiers no longer served the state but feudal overlords, who in constantly changing alliances traded and fought for power, gnawing like rats at what was left of the republic. The “government” of China recognized by the powers remained in Peking in the hands of a group of northern war lords known as the Anfu clique (from the provinces of Anhwei and Fukien), who owed their hold on office to Japanese support and loans.