Stilwell and the American Experience in China

1911-1945

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Barbara W. Tuchman won her second Pulitzer Prize for this nonfiction masterpiece—an authoritative work of history that recounts the birth of modern China through the eyes of one extraordinary American.
 
General Joseph W. Stilwell was a man who loved China deeply and knew its people as few Americans ever have. Barbara W. Tuchman’s groundbreaking narrative follows Stilwell from the time he arrived in China during the Revolution of 1911, through his tours of duty in Peking and Tientsin in the 1920s and ’30s, to his return as theater commander in World War II, when the Nationalist government faced attack from both Japanese invaders and Communist insurgents. Peopled by warlords, ambassadors, and missionaries, this classic biography of the cantankerous but level-headed “Vinegar Joe” sparkles with Tuchman’s genius for animating the people who shaped history.
 
Praise for Stilwell and the American Experience in China
 
“Tuchman’s best book . . . so large in scope, so crammed with information, so clear in exposition, so assured in tone that one is tempted to say it is not a book but an education.”The New Yorker
 
“The most interesting and informative book on U.S.–China relations . . . a brilliant, lucid and authentic account.”The Nation
 
“A fantastic and complex story finely told.”The New York Times Book Review

Under the Cover

An excerpt from Stilwell and the American Experience in China

1

Foundations of an Officer

Lieutenant Stilwell, aged twenty-eight, met China for the first time in November 1911 at the moment when the most ancient of independent nations stumbled into the twentieth century. Six weeks before he came, revolution had erupted half by accident, and, spreading from city to city in swaying battle against the Imperial forces, was about to overcome the decrepit Manchu regime. Haphazard in outbreak it was to be imperfect in triumph for it failed to fill the void left by what it swept away. The monarchy which had held together a quarter of the earth’s population found no firm successor. Fragmenting under rival claimants and already penetrated by a maze of foreign inroads into her sovereignty, China with lost cohesion and damaged confidence moved into the oncoming storms of the world’s most violent age.

The visitor, on leave from military duty in the Philippines, was as pure Yankee in heritage as it was possible to be. He was the eighth generation in direct descent from Nicholas Stilwell, who had come to America from England in 1638 and acquired property in Staten Island, Long Island and Manhattan. His mother’s forebears named Fowler had also arrived in the 1630s and over succeeding generations had gathered in the major strains of colonial America: English, French Huguenot and Dutch. Nicholas Stilwell had produced some 1,600 descendants by the time Joe Stilwell was born, of whom two, Colonel Richard Stilwell and General Garrett Stilwell, fought in the American Revolution.

A military career was not so much chosen by Joe as thrust on him by paternal whim. His father, Dr. Benjamin W. Stilwell, was a clever and handsome gentleman of authoritative character, comfortable circumstances and a variety of talents not carried too far. He was the son of John Stilwell, a dry-goods merchant of “business sagacity and exemplary habits” who had retired with a considerable fortune derived from investment in real estate and settled in Yonkers where he built an attractive house overlooking the Hudson and became a director of the Bank of Yonkers and a pillar of the Methodist Church. The family home remained in Yonkers thereafter.

Benjamin Stilwell took a law degree at Columbia when he was twenty-one but did not establish himself in practice. Following his marriage in 1880 to Mary A. Peene, and the birth of a daughter, he moved to a plantation near Palatka, Florida, with the intention of developing a lumber business in southern pine. Here on March 19, 1883, his first son was born and named Joseph Warren for the friend and physician who attended at his birth. The name had been inherited from the original Dr. Joseph Warren of Boston who, refusing the post of Surgeon General for a more hazardous active command, was killed in the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Abandoning the venture in lumber, Benjamin Stilwell returned with his family to Yonkers where he now took up the study of medicine and obtained a degree, but this profession too failed to attract him into practice. In 1892 the family, enlarged by a second son, John, and a second daughter, Mary, moved to a farm near Great Barrington in the Berkshires where Dr. Stilwell decided to take up the role of country gentleman. After four years he came to the conclusion that he was failing in the duty he owed society to make use of his endowments and so returned once again to Yonkers where he now accepted a position with a public utility, the Westchester Lighting Company, ultimately becoming vice-president.

Having at last satisfied the prodding of the puritan conscience which will not allow a man to live guiltlessly without a job, Dr. Stilwell enjoyed life thereafter as one of Yonkers’ distinguished citizens, holding office as president of the school board and various directorships of Westchester banks and companies. With his imposing but genial presence and considerable charm, Dr. Benjamin Stilwell was accepted at face value by his family and community as a superior person. “Father was impressive” was the verdict of a daughter. He had the manner and means to carry off the posture of prominence as well as the evident abilities which he never used to their fullest or tested in a more exigent world than Yonkers. He took his family to Paris in the centennial year of 1889, conducting them through England, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Austria and Italy and sending home a series of entertaining and well-written travel letters to the Yonkers Statesman. He painted and played the piano, maintained a strict hand and high moral tone over the upbringing of his children, presided and asked the blessing three times a day at the family dining table, entertained the family with a flow of stories, wit, advice and instruction, and enjoyed the devoted admiration of his sons and daughters, who believed, or were educated in the habit of believing, that Father was wonderful—and always right.

Joe Stilwell, called Warren by his family, was an active, driving, sharp-witted boy who climbed rooftops, drowned rabbits in the horse trough and exceedingly disliked Sunday services which he was required to attend three times in the day, including church, Sunday school and a sermon at vespers. Writing to his own daughter when he was over sixty, he recalled the “criminal instincts I picked up by being forced to go to Church and Sunday School, and seeing how little real good religion does anybody, I advise passing them all up and using common sense instead.”

Like his father, Warren had facility with words, but his heart and energy went into athletics. He played tennis, rowed a shell on the Hudson and played quarterback on the Yonkers High football team of which, in the words of a classmate, he was “the motive power, inspiration and field general.” When under his generalship the varsity of 1889 defeated all the prep school teams of New York City and Westchester, the public high school of Yonkers was so pleased that it paid its players. On the track team Warren’s specialty was the quarter-mile and his interest carried over to organizing track meets of the Westchester Inter-Scholastic League which he helped to form and serving as reporter of athletic events for the Yonkers Statesman. Organizing athletics was to remain a lifelong activity along with a passion for keeping himself in physical trim at the athlete’s level.

At the end of his senior year in 1889 the final report of the principal, Dr. Thomas O. Baker, described a model boy—as it proved, a little prematurely. The subject maintained “a high standard in all his studies,” possessed “energy and executive ability . . . useful in advancing the interests of the school,” had “no bad habits” and was “entirely worthy of confidence.”

Dr. Stilwell had chosen Yale for his sons but he now decided that at sixteen Warren was too young to go to college and, on the theory that the right place for every child was at home, he ordained that his able, bright, extra-energized, highly effective son should take a postgraduate year at Yonkers in the same school system in which he had been, with a brief interval, since he was five. Ironically, it was this over-protective gesture which diverted Joe Stilwell to a military career. Predictably bored, he soon departed from his estimable record. Forming a club of friends called the “Big Four,” he constructed a hideaway in the school loft with boards laid across the rafters where the group played cards and on one occasion suspended the principal’s desk by ropes from the ceiling. In another venture they spread Limburger cheese on the pupils’ desks, and in climactic naughtiness, at the senior dance of 1900, perpetrated what came to be known as the Great Ice Cream Raid. Led by Warren, the four marauders assaulted the refreshment table and after doing battle with the defenders, in the course of which Dr. Baker was inadvertently “slugged,” made off with the tubs of ice cream and trays of cakes. A special meeting of the Board of Education to deal with the scandal was summoned the next day, at which the guilty boys were variously suspended, expelled or not allowed to graduate, leaving Warren, who had already graduated, a special case.

Though at first unable to believe that a Stilwell could be guilty of misbehavior, Dr. Stilwell upon investigation confirmed the unhappy truth. He decided discipline was needed: Warren must go into the Army. He seems not to have taken a severe or punishing attitude for he told Warren (according to a version adopted if not authenticated by the family) that “there is a nice place up the Hudson where you can play tennis.” Although his father’s decision cost Warren the chance to play football at Yale, he made, as far as is known, no objection. Indeed, with the United States having recently tossed off a “splendid little war” in Cuba and still engaged in fighting Insurrectos in the Philippines, and with American infantry at that moment shooting their way along with other foreign troops to the rescue of the Legations besieged in Peking by the Boxer Rebellion, the prospect of being a soldier may have appealed to a boy suffering from both paternal smothering and a surfeit of high school.

In any event he seems to have plunged with characteristic intensity into the endeavor of gaining admission to West Point; a neighbor remembers his having stayed in bed for a week on the interesting theory that he could in this way stretch himself a quarter-inch to meet the height requirement for a cadet.

As it was already late to apply for an appointment to the Military Academy, Dr. Stilwell pulled wires. Through a neighbor across the street who was a friend of President McKinley, Warren was given an appointment as an alternate-at-large. On the application form Dr. Stilwell lightly penciled in the blanks before allowing his son to copy them over in ink. At the ordeal of the qualifying examinations Warren thought he had failed in mathematics, but when the names of those failing to qualify were mercilessly read aloud, he found himself, to his surprise, left in line with the successful remainder.

The student body in which he was now included did not represent a military caste such as was built into European society. Out of close to 4,000 officers who had graduated from West Point by the year 1900 only 139 or 3.5 percent were the sons or grandsons of previous graduates. Traditionally suspicious of “militarism,” Congress had retained the power of appointment to the Academy, and from fear of allowing a military caste to develop, tended to lean away from the sons of officers in favor of civilians’ sons. Its nominations brought together a group mainly of conservative, native-born, middle- and upper-middle-class background. Ages ranged in the first year from seventeen to twenty-two, with Stilwell among the youngest. The newest recruits on that July day in 1900 raced to the telegraph office to notify their families and then, as Stilwell wrote in his diary, “went back to hell.”

For plebe year at West Point in 1900 the description was not inappropriate. Hazing had reached an extreme at this time which, after the withdrawal and subsequent death of two cadets from causes attributed to hazing, brought on a Congressional investigation in February 1901. Among those required to testify, much against his will, was Douglas MacArthur, in the class a year ahead of Stilwell, who had lain on his cot in convulsions after a session of “exercising.” Plebes were made to squat over bayonets, to run naked while buckets of cold water were thrown at them, to be hanged from their thumbs or to stand on their heads in the bath, to hold a rifle on extended arms for long periods, to be “sweated” (wrapped in blankets and raincoats in July), to swallow Tabasco sauce or eat vast quantities of a food such as a plateful of molasses or two hundred prunes, to engage in forced fights or eat meals under the table and to suffer various other humiliations.

The practice was not entirely wanton. Its excuse was that, like the rigid routines of the official regime, it was said to teach self-control, resistance to panic and, above all, acceptance of authority. The core of the military profession is discipline and the essence of discipline is obedience. Since this does not come naturally to men of independent and rational mind, they must train themselves in the habit of obedience on which lives and the fortunes of battle may some day depend. Reasonable orders are easy enough to obey; it is capricious, bureaucratic or plain idiotic demands that form the habit of discipline. Of these, bracing at West Point—a frozen stance with shoulders squeezed back, chin and stomach sucked in—was the symbol and the essence.

“Brace, brace, brace,” Stilwell wrote in his diary, “drill, drill, drill. Oh, Lord. . . . Sink, setting up drill, drink, rest, squad drill, dinner, clean guns, squad drill, retreat, company drill around the area before supper. . . . Taps, oblivion, reveille at 4:30, brace all the time, at meals between every mouthful, had to brace on toes for an hour-and-a-half once.” Upper-classmen made bracing a constant torture. Sometimes plebes had to work “holding tissue paper between shoulder blades (a cinch when wet).” During tent camp in summer he was subjected to a “soiree” of hazing which he could describe only incoherently as “smoking and poking skags at your chin. And hell sauce. Oh, joy. Rat funerals and bugs. Watch ’em with crossed bayonets for hours.” Joe (as he was now and hereafter known except to his family) was homesick, miserable and constipated, a condition with which he was often concerned throughout life. “Overslept once till guns went off—scared to death. . . . Made beds, swept up tents, looed up walls, dragged water, put in collars and cuffs . . . cussed out all the time.”

He found escape in adventure stories borrowed from the library, among them Kidnapped, The Luck of Roaring Camp, King Solomon’s Mines, Under Two Flags, Les Misérables and a sport on this list, De Quincy’s Confessions of an Opium Eater. He kept the last out for the longest time, two weeks compared to two to five days for the others.

Eventually plebe year was over, and like coming into the sunlight out of some dark tunnel, he emerged an upper-classman. The curriculum of the Military Academy at this time was designed to produce an officer ab ovo and concentrated on the technical knowledge needed by a soldier with little attention to the possibly wider needs of a citizen. A student emerged marvelously proficient in drawing maps and terrain features but less well versed in the history of man and his institutions. The humanities were confined to one course in history and one in English language, literature and composition combined. Otherwise the cadet took French and Spanish, math, chemistry, law and “natural philosophy” (which meant a smattering of the physical sciences), plus his military subjects. In addition to drill regulations, these were ordnance and gunnery, surveying, fortifications, tactics and two years of drawing which included topography and plotting of surveys, shades and shadows, linear perspective, theory of color and laying of tints, field reconnaissance contouring, history of cartography, engineering and ordnance drawing, freehand landscape and enough more to equip a Leonardo.

- About the author -

Barbara W. Tuchman (1912–1989) achieved prominence as a historian with The Zimmermann Telegram and international fame with The Guns of August—a huge bestseller and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Her other works include Bible and Sword, The Proud Tower, Stilwell and the American Experience in China (for which Tuchman was awarded a second Pulitzer Prize), Notes from China, A Distant Mirror, Practicing History, The March of Folly, and The First Salute.

More from Barbara W. Tuchman

Stilwell and the American Experience in China

1911-1945

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Stilwell and the American Experience in China

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