- Historic Sites
A Yankee Among The War Lords
First of the Three Parts from STILWELL THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE IN CHINA 1911-1945
October 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 6
As Chiang Kai-shek’s troops advanced on the key city of Shanghai, their battle was fought for them and the way opened by Communist-organized strikes and demonstrations involving one hundred thousand workers, which the defending forces of the war lord Sun Chuanfang, despite savage efforts and a hundred beheadings, were unable to suppress. The concessions saw the spectre of revolution. Frenzied consultations took place among the Treaty Powers. Britain announced the sending of three brigades. The United States, shrinking from the prospect of armed intervention in China, cautiously moved 250 Marines from Guam as far as Manila and only after three weeks’ hesitation moved them on to Shanghai. As Chiang’s troops reached the outskirts and a state of emergency was declared, fifteen hundred more Americans and fifteen hundred Japanese were landed to supplement nine thousand British and the Shanghai Volunteer Force. Foreign residents prepared for siege and employed the labor of hundreds of Chinese to dig trenches and put up barbed-wire barricades and concrete blockhouses.
At the height of the crisis five thousand American Marines arrived, led by the Congressional Medal hero General Smedley Butler, veteran of every Marine engagement from the Spanish-American to the World War, including the Siege of the Legations, who promptly exasperated fellow commanders by his unheroic declarations to the press. His mission, he announced, was solely to protect American lives, not treaty rights. This was the principle steadfastly maintained throughout the Chinese turmoil of 1925-28 by Coolidge’s Secretary of State, Frank Kellogg, a self-taught lawyer and former senator from Minnesota. American forces in China, he insisted, were not sent to fight for the International Settlement or any other treaty provision but only to safeguard American nationals directly threatened. General Butler refused to give Shanghai hope of anything more.
On March 24, 1927, a day before the Marines landed, Nationalist forces entered Nanking and let loose a day of fearful terrorism against foreigners that was to go down as a date of reckoning in the relations of China and the West. In a campaign deliberately but anonymously instigated, troops rampaged through the city, yelling and shooting, attacking foreigners, looting and burning foreign homes, killing six foreigners—including the vice president of Nanking University, John E. Williams. Others took refuge on Socony Hill, the Standard Oil property, from which they were able to escape over the walls to gunboats in the river only when the British and American commanders, after an agony of hesitation, opened fire to keep off the attackers. A missionary’s wife, Pearl Buck, cowering with her family in the tiny one-room hut of a poor Chinese woman she had befriended, listened to the ferocity outside and thought, “The whirlwinds were gathering … and I was reaping what I had not sown. … We were in hiding for our lives because we were White.”
As news of the “massacre” of Nanking leaped by telegraph across China and other outbreaks followed, the missionaries fled to the rivers and gunboats and protection of the Treaty Ports. Eventually twenty-five hundred took refuge in Shanghai and other concessions, and five thousand left the country. Schools, colleges, hospitals, and Y.M.C.A.’s closed down or were taken over by the Nationalists. Later, in the early 1930's, the missionaries began coming back but were never to reach the numbers of the period before Nanking. …
Until their entry into Shanghai the Nationalist advance was generally regarded by the Treaty Ports as “the Red Wave on the Yangtze.” The profound split between right and left in the Kuomintang was not yet known to foreigners. The Hankow government, with Borodin and Bolshevik influence dominant, appeared to be in control. But Chiang Kai-shek and his supporters, if they were to achieve power in their own right, had to have the revenue and loans they could only obtain in alliance with capitalism. Labor troubles, peasant uprisings, and anti-foreign riots alarmed property owners in their own ranks and property owners whose support they needed. Communists working with the Kuomintang, including Mao Tse-tung, were busy organizing rent strikes and anti-landlord demonstrations among two million peasants of Hunan, and Mao was promising that soon all over China “several hundred million peasants will rise like a tornado … and rush forward along the road to revolution.” Chiang needed the support of landlord families. Communist organizers were equally active among the proletariat and labor unions of Shanghai. Chiang was determined that the great metropolis of commerce, banking, and foreign trade must not fall like Hankow under left-wing control. Shanghai was where the break had to be made.
Nationalist forces numbering about three thousand had entered the city on March 22, less by their own military prowess than by virtue of the strike action inside the city and the demoralized flight of Sun Chuan-fang’s forces. Arriving by gunboat, Chiang Kai-shek made contact with merchants and bankers through his former connections and obtained a loan on the security of his assurances. As commander in chief he had already absorbed into his army and given commands to apostate officers of the northern forces, many of them fellow alumni of Paoting Military Academy, whose presence strengthened his hand against the left. Through agents he learned of the plans of the revolutionaries who were collecting arms by night for the coup by which they hoped to capture control.