Stilwell Mission

Joseph Stilwell and Chiang Kai-shek
Joseph Stilwell and Chiang Kai-shek

Joseph Stilwell (1883–1946) was assigned to China between 1920 and 1923 and between 1926 and 1928 as a military intelligence officer in the U.S. legation in Beijing (Peking). He learned spoken Chinese. Between 1932 and 1939 he served as U.S. military attaché to China.

China fought Japan alone between 1937 and 1941, but the United States and China became allies against Japan after Pearl Harbor. The Allies established the China-Burma-India theater of war, and Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek became supreme commander of the China theater.

Since Stilwell was one of the few U.S. military officers who spoke Chinese, he was promoted from colonel to lieutenant general and appointed commander of U.S. forces in China, administrator of U.S. Lend-Lease aid to China, and chief of staff to Chiang in 1942.

Although he was a brave soldier, he was the worst possible choice for these positions because he was abrasive, stubborn, and entirely lacking in diplomacy, for which he was called "Vinegar Joe." His earlier experiences in China had also made him contemptuous of Chinese leaders.

Relations between Stilwell and Chinese leaders were bad from the beginning. His first campaign in 1942 to keep open the Burma Road, which supplied China overland, was a disaster and led to mutual recriminations.

Stilwell complained that the Chinese forces were unwilling to engage the Japanese, while Chiang countered by complaining about the little aid that he was receiving and expressing unwillingness to step up his efforts until he received more aid. With his tactless ways, Stilwell became the lightning rod in Sino-American relations and caused divisions within the U.S. administration.

He also quarreled with Claire Chennault, a proponent of air power, the commander of the volunteer airmen called the Flying Tigers, and later the commander of the Fourteenth U.S. Air Force, who had Chiang's support for building airfields to bomb Japan.

The friction came to a head in September 1943, when Stilwell demanded that Chiang lift the blockade against Chinese Communist Party (CCP)–held regions and use the freed-up troops against Japan.

In the midst of a major Japanese offensive, Stilwell received U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt's endorsement that Chiang hand over to him total command of all Chinese troops, and he delivered the ultimatum to Chiang in the most offensive manner, intending to humiliate the Nationalist government.

Stilwell Plan
Stilwell Plan

Both Vice President Henry Wallace and special presidential envoy general Patrick Hurley deemed the way Stilwell handled the situation with Chiang unacceptable. Although the difficult military situation compelled Chiang to accede to the U.S. demand for a U.S. commander for the Chinese forces, he rejected Stilwell as the man for the job, charging that he wanted not to cooperate with the Chinese as allies but to dominate them.

Hurley agreed, reporting to Roosevelt that "there is no issue between you and Chiang except Stilwell," adding "my opinion is that if you sustain Stilwell in this controversy, you will lose Chiang Kai-shek and possibly you will lose China with him."

Roosevelt recalled Stilwell on October 29, 1944. His replacement, General Albert Wedemeyer, did not command Chinese forces. The Stilwell episode was unfortunate because of its effect on Chinese-U.S. relations.