The news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the flurry of crisscrossing declarations of war that followed it were greeted with scarcely concealed relief in London and Moscow. At last, someone had forced the issue, had given President Franklin Delano Roosevelt an ironclad justification to his own people for committing them heart and soul to the war. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill later admitted that he “slept the sleep of the saved” the night after hearing the news.

Chiang Kai-shek and his government in Chongqing felt much the same, but did an even worse job of hiding their jubilation. Han Suyin, a novelist whose first husband was one of Chiang’s generals, writes how “officials went about congratulating each other as if a great victory had been won.” She claims that Chiang took a perverse delight in the sheer magnitude of the disaster at Pearl Harbor: “Telling criticisms of Chinese chaos, inefficiency, and defeat could now be shrugged off with a triumphant, ‘And what about you?'”

But some worries did cast a bit of a pall over the celebrations. When the attack on Pearl Harbor took place, Soong Ching-ling happened to be visiting her sister Ai-ling on the British island of Hong Kong, which stood exposed and defenseless just off the coast of Japanese-occupied China. The two narrowly escaped to Chongqing in one of the last airplanes out before Hong Kong was surrendered. Ugly rumors swirled around the Chinese capital afterward. The various permutations had it that Ai-ling had left either her personal security guard or an American journalist behind in order to have space enough on the plane for her pet dog and/or some additional articles of furniture. Whatever their veracity, the stories have much to say about Ai-ling’s reputation for heartlessness among even the elites of Chongqing. It is perhaps also telling that Ching-ling was left out of the stories and apportioned none of the blame, despite having been on the same airplane as her sister and having presumably failed to intervene.

The fall of Hong Kong was only one of the many humiliating reversals suffered by the Allies during the first six months of open war with Japan, the period during which Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the reluctant planner of the Pearl Harbor attack and mastermind of the Japanese naval war, was “running wild in the Pacific,” just as he had promised the political establishment in Tokyo that he would. As defeat piled upon defeat, the press and public in the West grasped at any silver linings they could find. One of the very first that they latched onto was Claire Chennault’s little American Volunteer Group, the about-to-be-legendary Flying Tigers of China.

The P-40s of the Flying Tigers have remained the iconic image of World War II in China in the eyes of the West, despite their relatively brief -lived combat career and limited impact on the war as a whole. This photograph was taken by Robert T. Smith, one of their number. (Public Domain)

On December 20, 1941, a group of Japanese bombers made a raid on the Southern Inner Chinese town of Kunming, a major logistical hub for Chiang’s war effort, such as it was. Such raids had long since become more or less a matter of routine; it had been years since the Chinese had even attempted to challenge Japanese air supremacy. On this occasion, however, a group of AVG P-40s came diving out of the sun with machine guns blazing, panicking and scattering the bombers hither and yon. The Flying Tigers had finally made their presence known.

Over the weeks that followed, it became clear that the AVG had put all those months of prewar training in Burma to good use. They had carefully studied the strengths and weaknesses of their P-40 fighters, and implemented tactics to maximize the one and minimize the other. They had improvised homemade cockpit armor out of scrap steel to alleviate their otherwise rugged planes’ most obvious point of vulnerability, and learned to dive on the enemy in close formation in scything surprise attacks, then to use their planes’ superior speed in a dive to escape before their opponents knew what had hit them. Above all, they had learned to never, ever engage Japanese fighters in an extended high-altitude dogfight, in which the latter’s vastly greater maneuverability would give them an insurmountable advantage. “Get in quick, then get out even quicker” was the Flying Tigers’ motto; the overall ethos of their training was similar in its way to the brand of asymmetric ground warfare practiced by Mao Zedong.

And it worked just as well for them as it did for Mao. The Flying Tigers were never a serious threat to the overall Japanese control of the sky over China — their number of planes was simply too small, and dwindling all the time as attrition took its toll — but they did at least manage to annoy the occupiers and force them to adjust to their existence, which was far more than what the rest of the Chinese air force had managed to accomplish to date. Most importantly of all, they were an inspiration to the Allies in a dark time, the subject of countless front-page newspaper articles back home. Chiang Kai-shek visited them regularly at their bases, to bask in the blazing flashbulbs of the press and let some of their glory reflect onto him.

But the behind-the-scenes story of the Flying Tigers was, as usual in Chiang’s China, more complicated than what one saw on the surface, being marked by repeated incidents of insubordination and near-mutiny inside the group. The American pilots felt cavalierly handled by both Chennault and Chiang, and were hardly blind to the corruption and waste that marked every aspect of life in war-torn China. “It was obvious [to us] that the Chinese weren’t fighting with the supplies that were given to them,” writes Gregory Boyington. The AVG collapsed completely in discord and recriminations in July of 1942, three months before John Wayne strapped himself into a P-40 to wow film-goers with a flag-waving cinematic interpretation of the Flying Tigers’ exploits.

Almost entirely symbolic though their actual value to the war effort may have been, the Flying Tigers made an American hero out of Claire Chennault, the man who had had the courage and foresight to come to China and join a worthy cause so long before the Pearl Harbor attack. He was hurriedly reinstated in the United States Army, at a rank of brigadier general, an advancement of three grades over the rank of major which he had held at the time of his retirement five year earlier. The uplifted Chennault continued to tell Chiang Kai-shek and anyone else who would listen that he could win the war against Japan using air power alone. This would become a problem not least for his fellow American General Joseph Stilwell, who was sent to China in March of 1942 to become the supreme Allied commander in the theater. “The finger of destiny is pointing at you,” he was told by Secretary of War Henry Stimson. If so, destiny would prove a cruel trickster.

On the surface, Stilwell appeared to be cut from much the same rough cloth as Chennault. He was, however, a man of unexpected depths. He had a talent for languages, and had learned to speak serviceable Chinese during several earlier postings to the country; this was a claim which shockingly few Western “China hands” — certainly not Claire Chennault — could make. Then, too, Stilwell genuinely liked and had faith in everyday Chinese people, to an ironically greater extent than Chiang Kai-shek himself; even his private journals betray none of the casual racism that was so endemic at the time. But Stilwell was also stubborn — every bit as stubborn as not only Chennault but Chiang. An infantryman to the core, he believed that the war in China could only be won the old-fashioned way, with boots on the ground. Chennault of course believed the opposite, and Chiang was disposed to place his trust in him rather than his superior. The stage was set for hopeless gridlock.

Chiang Kai-shek, Soong Mei-ling, and Joseph Stilwell, apparently having a grand old time together shortly after Stillwell’s arrival in the theater in 1942. The good times wouldn’t last. (Public Domain)

The first struggle was over the question of the British colony of Burma, which the Japanese had invaded just before Stilwell’s arrival. Burma was vitally important because it lay between non-occupied China and British India, and thus represented the one remaining route for moving supplies up to Chiang’s landlocked territory. Stilwell believed the invaders could be repelled if Chiang quickly sent an army southward. With the generalissimo expressing his amenability to the plan, Stilwell went to Burma to lay the groundwork for the counteroffensive that was to begin once the Chinese troops arrived. They never did; it seems that Chiang got cold feet as soon as Stilwell left his presence, if indeed he had ever intended to comply with the general’s wishes at all. His betrayal of his promise very nearly got the Allies’ supreme theater commander killed or captured by the rapidly advancing Japanese army. In an astonishing display of grit, Stilwell led his personal retinue of 100 mostly noncombatants on a desperate flight on foot of 140 miles (225 kilometers), over a mountain pass 7000 feet (2100 meters) in elevation, to reach India safely, starving but alive to a person.

Stilwell never trusted Chiang again after that. Livid at Chiang’s unwillingness to fight for even his own best interests — it was, after all, his own supply line that he had allowed to be cut — the supreme commander soon hit upon the nickname he would apply to the generalissimo for the rest of his time in China: “Peanut,” a name which rather beautifully captured Chiang’s serene insouciance. Other descriptors Stilwell favored included “obstinate, pig-headed, ignorant, intolerant, arbitrary, unreasonable, illogical, ungrateful, [and] grasping.” China was ruled by “a gang of fascists under a one-party government similar in many respects to our German enemy. Same outlook, same gangsterism.”

It was not a recipe for a successful partnership. By the middle of 1942, an acrimonious stalemate that would persist for almost two years had taken hold. Stilwell begged, cajoled, and thundered at Chiang to do something, anything, and Chiang seemed from time to time to be on verge of acceding to his wishes, but never followed through in the end. Meanwhile Claire Chennault was constantly undermining his superior by whispering in Chiang and Mei-ling’s ears that he could win the war for them easily if they could just find a way to elevate him to Stilwell’s position and get him the airplanes he craved. In a letter written to President Roosevelt in October of 1942, which was later wryly pronounced by Barbara Tuchman “one of the extraordinary documents of the war,” Chennault claimed that he needed just 105 modern fighters, 30 medium bombers, and 12 heavy bombers to “accomplish the downfall of Japan… probably within six months, within one year at the outside.” His reinstatement and promotion to brigadier general had been a political rather than a military decision, and letters like this one only reinforced the American Army brass’s opinion of him as a bounder and interloper. Nevertheless, he would eventually receive that many airplanes and plenty more — but he would never show any sign of being able to win the war with them alone.

With Burma lost, the only way to get supplies to China was to fly them in from India over the Himalayan Mountains. Thus began the most sustained airlift operation in military history. Over the course of the war, more than 150,000 individual flights were made over “The Hump,” in the face of low visibility, high winds, and bitter cold. Roughly one flight in 300 failed to reach its destination safely, at a cost of more than 1300 American lives. It was common knowledge among those engaged in the effort that much of the material they were risking their lives to deliver to Chongqing wound up being sold on the black market; the aviators called their own country’s government “Uncle Chump from over the Hump.” Morphine intended to alleviate the pain of wounded soldiers was sold on the streets of the capital as a recreational drug that was even better than opium, and blood plasma wound up for sale on the shelves of Shanghai pharmacies. Even more disconcertingly, there were reports of arms being sold to the very Japanese they had been intended to combat.

Chiang kept the Americans’ motivation high amidst this appalling corruption through blackmail: whenever the supply of aid showed signs of slackening, he would make noises about seeking a separate peace with Japan, what with the untenability of the position in which the Americans were leaving him. And then those selfsame Americans, who needed China to stay in the war if only to keep the 1 million Japanese occupiers of coastal Inner China tied down, would redouble their efforts. This left Joseph Stilwell, no shrinking violet in the best of circumstances, in a constant state of rage.

I never heard Chiang Kai-shek say a single thing that indicated gratitude to the president or to our country for the help we were extending to him. Invariably, when anything was promised, he would want more. Invariably, he would complain about the small amount of material that was being furnished. He would complain that the Chinese had been fighting for six or seven years and yet we gave them practically nothing. It would of course have been undiplomatic to go into the nature of the military effort Chiang Kai-shek had made since 1938. It was practically zero.

If Chiang wielded the stick when it came to relations with the West, Soong Mei-ling continued to wave the carrot. She wrote articles for American newspapers and magazines and won over a succession of visiting dignitaries with her Georgian mannerisms. But Stilwell was shrewd enough to be neither taken aback nor taken in by her, judging from his diary entries about her.

A clever brainy woman. Sees the Western viewpoint. (By this I mean she can appreciate the mental reactions of a foreigner to the twisting, indirect, and undercover methods of Chinese politics and war-making.) Direct, forceful, energetic, loves power, eats up publicity and flattery, pretty weak on her history. No concession to the Western viewpoint in all China’s foreign relations. The Chinese were always right; the foreigners were always wrong. Writes entertainingly but superficially, with plenty of sarcasm for Western failings but with no mention of any of China’s little faults. Can turn on charm at will. And knows it. Great influence on Chiang Kai-shek, mostly along the right lines, too. A great help on several occasions.

It was decided in the fall of 1942 that Mei-ling should travel to the United States herself, to encourage the war aid that Chiang still considered to be reaching Chongqing in far too paltry quantities. Arriving in New York City on November 27 after flying on a series of chartered military airplanes, she took over an entire floor of the New York Presbyterian Hospital. There she was treated for a long list of ailments which included wrenched ribs and a twisted back stemming from the 1937 attack on her motorcade by Japanese aircraft that had been so enthusiastically reported in Henry Luce’s magazines, along with nervous exhaustion, chronic insomnia, sinus problems, impacted wisdom teeth, and hives; it is difficult to evaluate the real extent of her maladies because Mei-ling was a lifelong hypochondriac. She was attended to in hospital by an entourage of 25 that included private nurses and secretaries, a private hairdresser and beautician, and her niece and nephew, H. H. Kung and Soong Ai-ling’s children, who were studying in the United States in accord with the Soong family tradition. (This pair reportedly behaved so imperiously that even their Chinese traveling companions referred to them as “the Kung brats.”)

In February of 1943, Mei-ling’s American tour really began, when she declared herself sufficiently recovered to go to Washington and move into the White House itself; few anecdotes illustrate her status in the United States as practically the co-ruler of China as eloquently as this one. But despite his sentimental attachment to China, President Roosevelt was not bowled over by Mei-ling’s charms. On the contrary, he soon was, in the words of a member of his cabinet, “just crazy to get her out” of his residence. The same was true of his wife Eleanor, who marked in Mei-ling “a certain casualness about cruelty.” In her autobiography, the first lady recounts an incident at dinner, when the gathering was discussing a recent case of American labor unrest. When someone asked Mei-ling how China dealt with wartime strikes, she replied by drawing a single long, elegantly lacquered, blood-red fingernail across her throat, to uncomfortable laughter all around.

Eleanor Roosevelt preferred to live as simply and non-ostentatiously as her position in life allowed. Mei-ling seemed to find this incomprehensible: “How do you manage when you go so many places alone? Who packs for you? Who buys your tickets? What do you do about telegrams? How can you do it alone?” “She can talk beautifully about democracy,” the first lady concluded, “but she does not know how to live democracy.”

The men of the United States Congress, on the other hand, felt no such qualms when Mei-ling addressed them in joint session. On the page, the speech she gave reads like the product of an overeager adolescent with a thesaurus and too much of a need to impress, being full of needlessly obscure fifty-dollar words that aren’t even used correctly. “Have faith,” she says at one point, “that, at the writing of peace, America and our gallant Allies will not be obtunded by the mirage of contingent reasons of expediency.” (“Obtund,” for what it’s worth, is a medical verb meaning to deaden or dull pain — presumably not quite the word she is looking for. And as for the meaning of “contingent reasons of expediency,” your guess is as good as mine.) But her appearance and her mode of address conquered any and all objections to the content of her hollow homilies. “In just a few short minutes, Mme. Chiang had Congress in the palm of her hand,” wrote one reporter. “Petite as an ivory figure, Mme. Chiang stands barely five feet [1.5 meters] tall in her high-heeled American slippers. Her poise is perfect, and she used to good advantage her small, expressive hands. Her movement, like her mind, is quick and graceful.” Congress responded to her speech with a rare standing ovation.

Soon after, she returned to New York City, much to the relief of the Roosevelts and the harried staff of the White House. (“Madame regarded virtually everyone below cabinet rank as coolies,” complained one of the latter.) New York became the starting point of the most extraordinary domestic American publicity junket of the Second World War, during which Soong Mei-ling engendered a sort of mass hysteria that no other Allied dignitary ever mustered on a visit to the United States — perhaps because they, unlike her, were too busy actually leading their own countries. A packed house of 17,000 people listened to her speak at Madison Square Garden; a church in Massena, New York, commissioned a stained-glass window of her, entitling it “The First Lady of Christendom”; 5000 people turned out to greet her train when it arrived in Boston (she traveled in her own private Pullman car, one previously used by President Roosevelt); her arrival in San Francisco, home of the biggest community of expatriate Chinese in the world, was greeted with a full-blown civic parade. When it all became too fatiguing, Mei-ling had her maid put on one of her trademark hats and wave in her stead to the crowds standing at every whistle-stop station through which her train passed.

It all culminated in a fabulously overblown and star-studded revue, arranged by the indefatigable Henry Luce, that was viewed by an audience of 30,000 at the Hollywood Bowl and broadcast live all over the country via radio. Almost every significant movie star of the era appeared onstage, along with color guards from the United States Army, Navy, Marines, and Merchant Marines, each of them singing their respective service’s anthem in front of a full brass band and orchestra. Mei-ling was driven onstage in a Rolls-Royce convertible, to be greeted with a bouquet of flowers by actress Mary Pickford as she stepped out of the car and took her throne of honor. Next came a Methodist invocation, followed by “China: A Symphonic Narrative,” a spectacular — and spectacularly idealized — presentation of Chinese history which required no fewer than 500 performers to bring off. At last, it came time for the main event, Soong Mei-ling’s address to the crowd and to the country. “The China of tomorrow speaks through a valiant woman’s voice,” intoned actor William Huston by way of introduction. “The China that gives us our great and gallant guest.” One cannot help but feel that this, the very zenith of her global fame, was also quite likely the happiest night of Soong Mei-ling’s life.

Be that as it may, she worked herself up into a righteous fury as she told of the atrocities committed by the Japanese in her homeland. “The invaders plundered and stripped the crucified [?] populace of livelihood,” she said, “molested our women, and rounded up all able-bodied men, tied them together like animals, forced them to dig their own graves, and finally kicked them in and buried them alive.” (Her anger would read more convincingly today if we did not know that her husband had been guilty of similar crimes many times over the course of his own political career.)

Soong Mei-ling returned to China at last in July of 1943. Like all equipment and personnel bound for Chongqing, she had to make the final leg of the journey in a cargo plane that flew over the Hump from India. She had brought many crates with her, as recounted by Graham Peck, an American officer on the scene.

The GIs [loading the airplanes] happened to drop one crate. It split open and its contents rolled out. It was full of cosmetics, lingerie, and fancy groceries with which Madame Chiang planned to see herself through the rest of the war. The GIs were furious, for this was one of the times when the Hump transport was in a bad state, with many American fliers losing their lives to get war supplies to China. The soldiers dropped and broke all the other crates they transshipped. When they had kicked every fur coat and trick clock around in the dust as thoroughly as time would permit, they threw the mess into the waiting planes.

By now, the war situation in the Pacific had changed dramatically. Japan’s time of “running wild” had long since run out, as the recently deceased Admiral Yamamoto had warned it would, and the Allies were engaged in the slower, more methodical process of rolling back all of their enemy’s gains, aided by the incomparable industrial might of the United States, that bottomless well of ships, planes, and tanks. Yet the war in China remained in a state of suspended animation, thanks to the immovability of Chiang Kai-shek. There had been a time when American planners — the most prominent among them being one Joseph Stilwell — had dreamed of a grand Chinese offensive pushing eastward on the Asian continent at the same time that those other Allied forces were pressing westward in the Pacific, squeezing Japan in a vice much like the one the Allies hoped soon to apply to Germany by making landings in occupied France at the same time that the Soviets continued their counteroffensive in the east. But fewer and fewer were still thinking that way; the best they could hope for from Chiang, it was becoming clear, was to keep a good number of Japanese soldiers tied down in China, simply by continuing to exist as the leader of a government nominally at war with Japan. Those familiar with life on the ground in Chongqing were less prone to be moved by Soong Mei-ling’s soaring speeches. “The consensus of most American officials and correspondents working in China,” writes Barbara Tuchman, “was that the Kuomintang was incompetent, corrupt, oppressive, unrepresentative, riddled by internal weakness, and unlikely to last.”

One of Chiang Kai-shek’s perpetual grievances was the lack of invitations to join the strategic conferences of the Allies at their highest levels. He desperately wanted to be seen as the equal of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin on the world stage, and this lack demonstrated all too clearly that he did not enjoy that status. To be sure, the Allies had their reasons for excluding him, not all of which were grounded in racism or any cultural superiority complex: Chiang’s government leaked like a sieve, which would make any war secrets the leaders might discuss almost automatic public knowledge. Nevertheless, in the wake of Soong Mei-ling’s banner visit to the United States, Roosevelt cajoled a reluctant Churchill into letting him invite Chiang Kai-shek and his wife to the two leaders’ next meeting, for symbolic purposes if none other. It was to take place in November of 1943, in Cairo, Egypt.

The Cairo summit was as close as Chiang would ever come to being treated as the leader of a great power of real geopolitical consequence. He squandered the opportunity with a confused and confusing, self-contradictory and endlessly prevaricating performance from which even Mei-ling, who was as usual acting as his translator and doing what she could to massage his words to suit his audience, could not extricate him. He enraged George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff of the United States Army, by referring to his “right” to far more military aid than he was currently receiving. “I thought these were American planes and American personnel and American material,” bellowed Marshall. Everyone treated him like a party crasher, a waste of his betters’ time. A British general on the scene summed up the mood in the room by calling him a “small man,” unworthy of these councils that were quite literally deciding the future of the world. He was never invited to another summit.

A rather hilariously staged photograph of Chiang Kai-shek, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Soong Mei-ling in Cairo. Roosevelt appears to be sharing a convivial private joke with Chiang, but in reality the two men shared no common language. Churchill and Soong Mei-ling did, but found they had little to say to one another regardless. (American National Archives)

When the longstanding stalemate in the Chinese theater was shattered at last in April of 1944, it was not down to anything Chiang did, but rather to the Japanese, who launched their most concerted offensive since 1938 in China in an effort to balance their losses in the Pacific with territorial gains on the Asian mainland. The divisions of Chiang’s troops which the Japanese encountered “simply evaporated,” in the words of Sterling Seagrave, despite outnumbering their enemy by five or ten to one in some places. The almost unopposed Japanese advance ignited a momentary panic in the Allied camp, a fear that the Japanese leadership might abandon their home islands entirely and set up shop in China, recruiting millions of Chinese troops to their side — for it was by now abundantly obvious that most Chinese were not particularly invested in fighting for Chiang Kai-shek. Still, dependent as they were on a Chinese willingness to forgive and forget atrocities like the Rape of Nanjing, such fears were never very well-founded.

Yet Chiang’s façade in the West had begun to crack; few referred to him again as China’s George Washington after this point. Even Henry Luce’s Life magazine acknowledged that the reality of Chiang’s China was not precisely the one that Soong Mei-ling had depicted for her adoring audience at the Hollywood Bowl, although it couldn’t resist praising her one more time in the process of doing so. “Perhaps nothing attests more eloquently [to] the genius of this brilliant woman,” it said, “than the skill with which she has clothed all of China in the radiant glamor of her personality.” The rest of the report was unsparing in its criticism, a stunning about-face from the admiring coverage of Chiang’s regime which Luce’s publications had been printing for the past fifteen years.

You have to live in Chongqing to feel the weight of the [Kuomintang] party in men’s personal lives. Censorship hangs over authors, playwrights, movie makers, and all participants in public expression. The press lives in a shadow world of gossip, handouts, and agency dispatches. None of the great problems of China — famine, inflation, blockade, foreign relations, or public personalities — can be honestly discussed in public.

The gray atmosphere of Chongqing eats into the lives of all who live there. There are not one but two secret-police outfits in China. One secret police operates for the National Military Council, another for the party itself. Their spies and agents are everywhere. Men can be arrested in China and thrown into jail or concentration camps for any fancied offense.

Today the Nationalist Party is dominated by a corrupt political clique that combines some of the worst features of Tammany Hall and the Spanish Inquisition…

President Roosevelt, for his part, dropped any pretense of treating Chiang’s China as a strategic equal. He sent a series of harshly worded cables to Chongqing that reduced the relationship to a quid pro quo: if Chiang wished to keep receiving American aid, he must place his military at the disposal of General Stilwell and get out of the way. Satisfying though they doubtless were to write after years of pussyfooting, these messages were exactly the wrong way to get Chiang to do anything, however much he wanted more American money and materials. (Just what the right way might have been was, as we’ve seen, unclear.)

Seething with frustration, Stilwell mused that the United States ought to consider switching its allegiance to the Communists, who were having no trouble defending their own territory in the North against the Japanese. In fact, they had expanded it dramatically, from 35,000 square miles (90,000 square kilometers) at the time of Edgar Snow’s visit in 1936 to 155,000 square miles (400,000 square kilometers) by 1944. They now governed a population of 54 million, and possessed a large army built around a solid core of well-trained, battle-hardened veterans, equipped largely with weaponry they had seized from the Japanese, who had developed a healthy respect for their fighting prowess over the years and were now content to mostly leave them alone. Mao Zedong cleverly exploited the high-level dissension plaguing the war effort in the South by suggesting that he would be willing to send some of his troops to halt the Japanese advance there as well, as long as they were placed under Stilwell’s rather than Chiang’s command.

The offer did Stilwell no favors in his own country. The pro-Chiang contingent inside the American government, responding to aggressive lobbying from T.V. Soong’s Washington operation, took extreme umbrage at Stilwell’s suggestion that the United States get in bed with the Communists, even though it was probably more a way of blowing off steam on his part than a serious proposal. On October 19, 1944, Stilwell was recalled from his thankless command, to be replaced by a blander caretaker named Albert Coady Wedemeyer. Stilwell’s domestic enemies referred to him afterward as “the pro-Communist General Stilwell,” and went so far as to claim that “Stilwell’s dismissal interrupted a program that would have brought the Chinese Communists to power.”

The reality was that Chiang’s government was already well on its way to accomplishing that on its own through its venality and casual brutality, as the more clear-eyed members of the American foreign-policy establishment were coming to recognize. “The Chinese Communists are so strong between the Great Wall and the Yangtze that they can now look forward to postwar control of at least North China,” wrote one of their number, John Paton Davies. “The Communists have survived and they have grown. The reason for this phenomenal vitality and strength is simple and fundamental. It is mass support.” Mass support was, of course, a luxury which Chiang’s government had never enjoyed.

Soong Mei-ling had returned to the United States for another junket a month before Stilwell’s recall, but she met with a far more guarded reception this time; there were no more stays at the White House, speeches before Congress, or spectacular revues at the Hollywood Bowl. The press began to notice her expensive personal habits, which for the first time were questioned in relation to the poor, embattled country whence she had come.

In the meanwhile, the Japanese advance petered out more or less on its own, due, as usual, more to logistical problems than any efforts on the part of Chiang’s armies. In January of 1945, British and American forces reestablished a land corridor between India and China after a year of hard fighting in Burma. The campaign had been planned and overseen by Stilwell prior to his recall, and the supply route was now named the Stilwell Road in recognition of his dogged persistence. The noose was tightening around Japan, whether Chiang’s armies ever took to the field in earnest or not.

They never did. Instead the coup de grâce was delivered in August of 1945, in the form of two atomic bombs, dropped from American B-29 airplanes flying out of a base in the Mariana Islands. If one didn’t look too hard, it almost seemed like a validation of Claire Chennault’s old schemes for defeating Japan through air power alone. (Needless to say, Chennault himself, still firmly embedded in the Chiang household, was among those who weren’t sweating the details; he claimed vindication.) There had in fact been a time when the Americans had envisioned using China as their primary base for bombing Japan, but they had given up and built their airfields elsewhere after contending fruitlessly with a thousand practical problems that were exacerbated rather than relieved by Chiang’s government. It was a suitable crowning metaphor for the whole Allied experience in China, which would be written into the official histories of the war as the most “difficult,” dysfunctional, and militarily ineffective theater of operations of them all.

Soong Mei-ling had just returned to Chongqing after fourteen months abroad on September 2, 1945, when the Japanese signed the formal documents of surrender in Tokyo Bay to bring the Second World War to a close. She took to the American airwaves to commemorate the occasion. “Now that complete victory has come to us,” she said, “our thoughts should turn first to the rendering of thanks to our creator and the sobering task of formulating a truly Christian peace. Unless we implement and maintain in action the professed ideals for which we of the united nations entered this war, all the bloodshed and sacrifice of our loved ones will be of no avail.” It was a tacit recognition of a painful truth: that a China without foreign invaders was in many ways a more dangerous proposition for Chiang Kai-shek’s unloved regime than the opposite.

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(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

6 Comments for "Chapter 21: Dubious Allies"

  • Robert

    Reading this is like watching a train wreck in slow motion!

  • Michael+Waddell

    This is terrific writing, and I really appreciate it. But I notice you didn’t mention Russia’s invasion of Manchuria just before Japan’s surrender. It seems a rather significant omission (some believe it precipitated Japan’s surrender more than the atomic bombs did). Will that be a part of the next episode?

    • Jimmy Maher

      Yes, that will be in the next chapter, because it’s very significant for the Chinese civil war that followed the Second World War.

  • Will Moczarski

    five year earlier
    -> years

    Joseph Stilwell is sometimes spelled correctly but often Stillwell.

    thundered at Chiang do something
    -> to do something

    where she was treated for long list of ailments
    -> for a long list

    • Jimmy Maher


  • Doug Orleans

    I just saw the new movie Hidden Blade, a noir thriller set in China during WWII. Having read these articles definitely helped me understand the references to Chiang, Kuomintang, and the three-sided nature of the struggle between the Communists, the Chinese government, and the Japanese invasion. It’s still a pretty confusing movie, but thanks for making it slightly less confusing!


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