This article originally appeared on HNN on 1-04-10
A Closer Look at "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell
By John J. McLaughlin
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.