Stilwell the Patriot: Vinegar Joe, the Brits and Chiang Kai-Shek

The story David Rooney describes in this fine study is concerned with the extraordinary endeavours of one of the leading Allied characters of the Second World War, Lieutenant General ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell.  Stilwell ranks alongside Great Britain’s General ‘Bill’ Slim and a very small group of senior allied commanders who spent all their service between 1941 and 1945 engaged in the long war against Japan in south east Asia, and whose names will be indelibly connected for their contributions to the destruction, after years of unremitting hardship, of Japanese militarism in Asia.

During the Second World War, across every theatre, forces from a variety of nations, with differing and sometimes competing cultures, national perspectives and strategies were forced to co-operate together to an extent never before experienced.  These relationships were not always easy, and the development of effective collaboration – not always achieved – became a critical objective of higher command in the war.  The tensions between Wavell and De Gaulle in the Levant in 1941 and between Eisenhower and Montgomery in north west Europe in 1944 and 1945 are but two of many examples.

It was in south east Asia that probably the most complicated set of international relationships developed anywhere in the war, involving the British, Americans and Chinese at every level, from the tactical – with Chinese and British and Chinese and American fighting alongside each other through monsoon jungle, muddy trail and heat-scorched rice padi – to the highest realm of inter-governmental decision making.  The United States representative in this diverse and dynamic theatre was an infantry soldier whose courage and professionalism was already a byword in the pre-war United States Army, and his service in India, Burma and China between 1941 and 1944 has forever associated his name with the long war against Japan from China.

History and historians have tended to treat Stilwell, as is often the case with enigmatic characters of his ilk, with passion, prejudice and precious little balance.  Stilwell, like that other aberrant personality Orde Wingate, seems fated to attract only the extremes of comment, and a full consideration of his contribution to the ultimately successful prosecution of the war against the Japanese can too easily be lost.  Like Wingate, Stilwell has suffered this loss to his reputation, but by no means all of it has been deserved.  Rooney redresses this balance and rehabilitates Stilwell through an analysis of the core drivers and values that motivated him to commit so much of his life and health to such difficult and seemingly unrewarding endeavours in China.

He captures Stilwell’s full-orbed personality and recognizes in the man much more than the simple hard-living infantryman of legend, but the true patriot of American interests at a time when even patriotic Americans seemed not to understand that their interest were being ill-served by pandering to the warlords of the Kuomintang.  The passion of his defence of United States interests against the blatant depredations of the nationalist Chinese who sought only their own selfish advantage, and those of imperializing Britain, who appeared to seek only the recovery of lost grandeur, can easily be lost amidst the noise generated by his letters and diary, which has often hidden the clear motivations for Stilwell’s attitudes and behaviour.

It was this patriotic mission that gave Stilwell the oft-observed ‘fire in his belly’, not his penchant for self-publicity or hard living, and is the key factor against which his achievements must be judged. This is the singular success of David Rooney’s new study.  It should do much to reappraise Stilwell’s achievements in the light of the failure of United States policy towards China in the years that followed the end of the war, as well as enable a new understanding of the complex relationships Stilwell established not just with his fellow Americans but with ‘Limey’ and Chinese alike.

Robert Lyman, 4 November 2004