A Closer Look at "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell


Mr. McLaughlin received his PhD in history from Drew University in 2008. His dissertation focused on General Albert C. Wedemeyer.

Americans rightly  regard General Joseph W. Stilwell as a hero. Few know that he was a total failure with respect to his primary  mission which was to be the Commander of American Forces in the China Burma India  theater (CBI) and Chief of Staff to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek! That story has not been told.

Stilwell became an iconic hero in the annals of World War II. His famous "walk out from Burma," his salty language, and his later  retaking of Burma in 1944 generated a good deal of interest at a time when the  American public was starving for heroes. The official history of World War II, the  79 volumes of the "Green Book" series devoted three volumes to the CBI where Stilwell served in World War II and praise him highly for his efforts in Burma and China. Popular historian Barbara Tuchman in her best seller Stillwell and the American Experience in China writes glowingly of his exploits, and in turn disparagingly of his successor, General Albert C. Wedemeyer. She found Wedemeyer's use of an exclamation mark in his own 1958 memoir, Wedemeyer Reports! to be pompous and, in a foot stamping put down said: "Not given, as he climbed, to reticence about his virtues, he subsequently vindicated his career in a book which bore his own name and an exclamation point in the title." When Stilwell was recalled in October 1944 by President Roosevelt the decision was widely unpopular in the American press. Drew Pearson, the influential Washington columnist, ridiculed Wedemeyer's new assignment in a column in the Washington Times, and many others agreed. Not surprisingly Wedemeyer, as his replacement was given little credit for his efforts in China. The  disdain that Stilwell had for Wedemeyer, often  expressed verbally and in print did little to enhance Wedemeyer's image in the popular press. When in October 1944 Stilwell finally realized he was to be replaced he stated he hoped it would not be by Wedemeyer, who he said was the "world's most pompous prick."   

Clearly Stilwell was easy to write about and was popular with both his troops and the press. When in the Spring of 1942 he took over a hopeless task in Burma he was soundly defeated and driven from Burma by a vastly better equipped, better organized and highly motivated Japanese army. When at last he finally realized there was no hope he consented to have his dispirited forces evacuated by plane, just hours away from capture. He refused to board the last available plane sent to rescue him. His last message repeated all over the world was " I prefer to walk," and walk he did, through dense forest, underbrush, bamboo thickets, steep mountainsides, biting ants, bloodthirsty bugs and leaches, dehydration, hunger, and withering sun. A three star general, 59 years of age,  who wore no insignia or rank, he lead his  retreating group on foot. They  were beset with bouts of food poisoning, a withering sun and malaria, all the while just days, and sometimes hours away from the pursuing Japanese. Stilwell did not lose a single one of the 115 who accompanied him in this retreat. Reporter Jack Belden, part of the this group which could not make the last plane, accompanied  Stilwell and an assorted group of nurses, soldiers and civilian and told the remarkable  story in his best seller Retreat With Stilwell.

The retreat was closely followed and reported by the world press and generated enormous interest. Several books have been written about the retreat.  When his group finally reached India his "walk-out" was reported in every major newspaper in the world and he was famous. He was mobbed at the airport by a swarm of over a hundred newsman and photographers. There was little good news at the time and his retreat and promise to return and retake Burma put him on the cover of many major newspapers and magazines.

In the fall of 1943 and the spring of 1944, largely with Chinese troops he personally trained he led a force into Burma which in a six month period drove the Japanese from Burma and reopened the Burma Road. He personally led these forces from a front line position with little or no regard for his own safety. For his efforts he won his fourth star, ironically on the recommendation of a man he hated, General Wedemeyer.

So, what is there to find fault with about Stilwell? Wedemeyer, relates how when he arrived at Kunming China in October 1944 to replace Stilwell, there was no one there to brief him on events that had transpired in China in the previous six months that Stilwell had been totally incommunicado in Burma. Stilwell had left without waiting to brief Wedemeyer, and left no operational  plans to guide him. For this serious breach of military courtesy Stilwell has never been called to task. Moreover, during that same 6 month period the Japanese had launched their last desperate offensive and but for the intervention of Wedemeyer with new troops assigned to him by Chiang Kai-shek, China's last air depot Kunming, the terminal for the air transport over "The Hump" would have been lost and China would have been totally cut off. One critic who recognized the strategic blunder of Stilwell, and saw the anomaly of a three star general in the jungles on the front lines called Stilwell, "the best three star battalion commander in the United States Army."

Perhaps more importantly, it was Stilwell's myopic view of his function in China, namely to beat the Japanese, using the combined forces of the Nationalists and the Communists in one integrated army, an inherently impossible task, which set him apart from Wedemeyer. Unlike Stilwell, Wedemeyer understood the menace of Communism. Stilwell  naively thought, as General Marshall did later in 1945, that  he could blend these forces into one fighting unit against the Japanese. He used his power over Lend Lease material in an effort to bend Chiang Kai-shek to his will and force him to absorb the Communist troops and Nationalist troops into one army. Stilwell hated Chiang Kai-shek, and his attitude greatly influenced both General Marshall and the American Foreign Service Officers who were influential in encouraging the State Department to withhold aid to the Nationalists. The Communist forces benefited greatly from these decisions. 

Wedemeyer, on the other hand repeatedly warned the State Department, his superiors, and both Roosevelt and Truman that failure to support Chiang Kai-shek would ultimately lead to a Communist take over of China. He reiterated these recommendations in his  famous 1947 report to President Truman but the report was suppressed, and the result was a Communist take over in 1949. All Wedemeyer's recommendations, like the mythical Cassandra, were accurate, but not believed. 

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Hawley Stevens - 1/12/2010

I am fascinated by the power of that word; "MacArthur." Put it in an article and half the historians will begin foaming at the mouth while the others bow down in worship. I am at a loss to understand Mr. Gaston's quote by Stilwell regarding MacArthur and what it is supposed to illustrate. What I do know is that after being "fired" Stilwell went to MacArthur to ask for command of a division during the approaching Japanese invasion but instead was given an army.

Robert Lee Gaston - 1/6/2010

Stilwell may have had better insight than most of those around him.
In 1944, when everyone else was proclaiming MacArthur as one of the greatest men in history, Stilwell made the following remark to General Frank Dorn.
”The problem with MacArthur was that he had been a general too long. He got his first star in 1918 and that means he’s had almost thirty years as a general. Thirty years of people playing to him and kissing his ass, and doing what he wants. That’s not good for anyone.”
One has to remember that Stilwell’s mission was well beyond commanding U.S. Forces in China. It was to keep China in the war, and keep the Japanese army In China and out of the rest of the Pacific. I’m not sure that there was a will or the leadership in the Chiang government to accomplish the strategic mission. By taking personal command of the forces at hand, he moved younger Chinese company and field grade officers into the field and away from the political center of the country. This, of course, threatened Chiang who sought and received help from Henry and Clare Luce in getting rid of Stilwell.
Stilwell was an old China hand, and may have had a better understanding of the country than its top leadership. He certainly had a better understanding of Mao and communism than Atkinson, who had visited Mao in Yenan, and saw the Communist Chinese forces as a democratic movement.
As to Wedemeyer; imagine sitting in a military headquarters with a small staff, not speaking the language supporting a national government that was wholly disconnected from its people. The sense of isolation must have been profound.

Andrew D. Todd - 1/6/2010

China's area and population are approximately ten or twenty times those of Korea or Vietnam-- and more than a hundred times those of Greece. Considering that the United States' military power is, first and foremost, naval, China has vastly less coastline, relative to its area, that these other countries. Both the Nationalists and the Communists organized armies of millions of men, and the difficulties of supplying enough American troops to make a differences would have been extremely formidable. The Korean War and Vietnam War demonstrated the actual limits of American military power. American involvement on a scale sufficient to achieve comparable results in China, on the same ratio of commitment to size and population, would have been rather larger than American involvement in the Second World War. That was never even a remote possibility.

You presumably know a lot about General Wedemeyer by this point, and the fact that you can make such pronouncements is an indication of how fundamentally Wedemeyer must have been remote and isolated from China. I understand that he did not speak the language, of course, and therefore had no contact with a good ninety-nine percent of the population. I have noticed that a given American's tendency to believe that a given foreign country can be effortlessly controlled, and remodeled, and reconstructed tends to vary inversely with that American's command of the native language.

John J. McLaughlin - 1/5/2010

I wanted to make a reply rather than a comment, but the "reply" section did not seem to function so this is a reply to the three comments:
First I welcome a healthy and lively debate on these important and controversial topics, and it seems that the issue here is not Stilwell but why China turned Communist.
On this subject it is unlikely that anything said will change the majority view that China went Communist because of Chiang's corruption, and the strength of Communist forces against a week and tired Nationalist army. In the view of this group the takeover was inevitable and America could do nothing to prevent it. This is, of course, the view expressed by Dean Acheson in his famous White Paper [White "Wash" to some] and this has been subscribed to by all defenders of the Roosevelt and Truman Administration.
In order to fully understand the background one would have to examine a number of documents and study the issues carefully. I would sugest starting with a reading of the fabulous Introduction to The Amerasia Papers: A Clue to The Catastrophe of China" which is printed at the beginning of the hearings conducted in January 1970. Then they should look at the famous "X" article by George Kennan which formed the basis of the "Truman Doctrine" Then remember that in 1947 we intervened in Greece and Turkey to help them to successfully defeat the threat of Communism. Few, most of of Kennan wanted his doctrine to apply in Asia. It was designed solely for Europe. Then a reading of the MacArthur Hearings would be recommended. These hearings turned out to be a lot more than a debate about whether Truman should have fired MacArthur. They quickly developed into a wide ranging argument about our foreing policy in Asia, especially China.A fair reading of the foregoing would suggest to any fair reader that the USA let down China, our wartime ally, and we did far less than we should have to help her.
Having said all this I close with the claim that no one would dispute the wisdom of an old Russian proverb which goes something like this: "Only the future is certain; the past continues to change!"

John J.McLaughlin

Lewis Bernstein - 1/5/2010

This is incoherent. Stilwell was relieved because that was the step necessary to placate Jiang.
Truman decided to relieve MacArthur in January 1951 before his letter to the Minority Leader of the House because he became a liability - unalterably opposed to the administration's Korea policy.
Both were relieved despite their anticommunism.

Vernon Clayson - 1/4/2010

Gen. Stillwell didn't like Communists, Gen MacArthur didn't like Communists, both were relieved by theie presidents, is there a message in this? Mr. Clifford is correct in stating that assuming the policies Made in America determine the shaping of history is in error. Someone should tell that to the current US president, he seems to believe just his words guide the world's nations.

Nicholas Clifford - 1/4/2010

Interesting piece, and of course there's no reason that Stilwell ought to be shielded from revisionist history any more than anyone else. Still, the implication at the end that, had Wedemeyer's suggestions been adopted, China would not have been "taken over" (strange term -- it was not a take-over, but a military conquest) by the Communists, seems hardly credible. The war brought enormous changes to China, and the CCP and its military, for a whole variety of reasons, were better able to profit from them than their opponents, as well as to use them to undercut Chiang and his Nationalists. It's essential to understand this Chinese context, since otherwise one falls into the trap, unfortunately common to historians both on the left and the right, of assuming that it is the policies Made in America that determine the shaping of history.