22. The War Turns Away from China

Most Americans shared the humiliation that General Stilwell expressed after the Burma campaign. The Japanese victories everywhere had been spectacular. Allied losses had been incredible. The American battleship fleet had been crippled. The Royal Navy had been driven entirely out of the Indies and the Bay of Bengal. The British had surrendered 85,000 empire troops at Singapore. The United States had lost 30,000 troops in the Philippines, the Filipinos 110,000. By comparison, the vast run of conquest had cost the Japanese only about 15,000 men (12,000 in the Philippines), 380 aircraft and four destroyers.1

Despite the victories, however, the Japanese conquest was not complete. Japanese naval leaders wanted to eliminate the two possible bases for an American counterattack: Hawaii and Australia. Admirals and staffs argued as to which direction the next strike should go. Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku and the combined fleet favored taking Midway island, 1,100 miles west of Pearl Harbor, as a bait to pull the U.S. fleet into action and destroy it. Later Japan might occupy Hawaii and push the American navy back to the U.S. west coast. The naval staff, however, wanted to drive through the Solomon islands to seize New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa and thereby block off the sea routes between the U.S. and Australia. This move got the most favor because the Japanese had already advanced into the Solomons and onto the northern coast of New Guinea by March, 1942.

The April 18 Doolittle raid changed thinking. The Japanese people had been led to believe their islands were inaccessible to enemy aircraft. Yet, four months after Pearl Harbor, American bombers had attacked the imperial capital. Consequently, the Japanese command decided to undertake both operations: the Midway strike to forestall further raids on Japan and the thrust to isolate Australia. This divided Japan's strength, effort and concentration and was to have vast effects.

The revised Japanese plan called for a drive deeper into the Solomons, plus capture of Port Moresby on the south coast of New Guinea. Meanwhile, Admiral Yamamoto would mount an expedition to occupy Midway island and destroy the U.S. Pacific fleet. Then, the Japanese would resume their drive southeast to block off Australia.

However, U.S. cryptanalysts had cracked Japanese naval codes to the degree that they knew the main threads of the Japanese plan.2 The Pacific commander, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, therefore, sent his two remaining aircraft carriers, Yorktown and Lexington, south from Pearl Harbor to intercept the Port Moresby and Solomon attack forces.

In the Coral sea in early May, 1942, the U.S. task force sank a light carrier moving with the Port Moseby invasion fleet and so frightened the Japanese commander that he called off the invasion. The Americans also damaged a Japanese fleet carrier but lost Lexington and suffered damage to Yorktown. However, workers repaired Yorktown in two days and the carrier hurried back to Hawaii to take part in the great battle of Midway that was shaping up.

If Yamamoto could draw out and destroy the U.S. fleet at Midway before new American ship construction could alter the power balance, the Japanese could seal off or conquer Australia, while bombing or seizing Hawaii. The strategy might not win the war but the Japanese hoped the Americans would give up and grant Japan an honorable peace.

Although the Japanese had an immense superiority of force, eight carriers to Nimitz's three and eleven battleships to his none, Yamamoto fatefully divided his forces. He sent two carriers with a decoy invasion force to the Aleutians, one to escort the battleships and another to support the Midway invasion force. This left just four carriers with 250 aircraft under Admiral Nagumo Chuichi to contest the sea with Nimitz's three, carrying 233 aircraft.

Because of the spectacular work of his naval cryptanalysts, Nimitz knew the main thrust was coming at Midway and did not allow himself to be drawn off by the Aleutians invasion force or by reports of a renewed drive into the southwest Pacific.3 Therefore, he was able to concentrate all his force against Nagumo. In a brilliant series of determined attacks on June 4, 1942, American aircraft sank all four of Nagumo's fleet carriers against the loss of Yorktown. It was one of the quickest changes of fortune in naval history.

With four fleet carriers gone, and especially their well-trained air and deck crews (most of whom went down with the ships), the continued Japanese superiority in battleships and cruisers meant little. The Japanese gave up their naval air supremacy at Midway. Thereafter, as U.S. carrier strength grew, Japanese ships could venture out only when covered by land-based aircraft and this fatally limited wide blue-sea operations.

* * * * * * * * * *

It was not apparent at first, but the battle of Midway changed the nature of the Pacific war fundamentally. As its strength increased, the U.S. Navy could advance in great sweeps through the Pacific and capture islands within bombing range of Japan. As the Pacific strategy unfolded, the strategic importance of China declined dramatically.

Two American officers, however, fought this gradual downgrading: if China wasn't vital to the war effort, neither were they. These two officers were Joseph W. Stilwell and Claire L. Chennault. Now a brigadier general, Chennault believed that, with a few bombers and fighters, he could sweep the skies of Japanese aircraft, interrupt the flow of war materials from the south seas and thereby defeat the empire. General Stilwell, an infantryman to the core, wanted to create a powerful Chinese army shored up by American troops to recapture Burma, then "eject" the Japanese from Thailand, push to the South China sea coast and cut the Japanese north-south sea lines.4 It was a proposal for an enormous ground campaign that would absorb millions of soldiers and workers and require endless supplies.

In preparation, Stilwell wanted Americans to train a hundred-thousand Chinese soldiers in India. He recommended that all commanders above the regimental level be Americans. As for the rest of the thirty or so understrength divisions over which Chiang Kai-shek had direct control, they should be merged to create full-strength units and all their commanders should be purged except a handful. Finally, Stilwell said one man should have "absolute control" of this new-model army. It went without saying that this supreme commander should be Stilwell himself.5

It is difficult to imagine how one man could have written down in a single paper so many proposals that ignored or were oblivious to the realities facing him. Limited U.S. resources had to be used where the Japanese were advancing, not in Burma which was near the bottom of the list of U.S. and British priorities. Burma was and would remain a sideshow.

Stilwell's ideas for a new sort of Chinese army were even more unrealistic. Nothing could have been more humiliating to the Chinese than Stilwell's plan to substitute American commanders in positions above the regiment. And to place an American general (himself) in "absolute control" of the Chinese troops and to dismiss KMT commanders who were ineffective but nevertheless loyal to Chiang Kai-shek would eliminate Chiang's authority in an instant. A new-model army was the one thing Chiang would never accept.6

After Stilwell presented his plan, Madame Chiang told Stilwell he had to be realistic. "Heads cannot be lopped off," she said. "Otherwise nothing would be left."7 It was good advice and, had Stilwell heeded it, perhaps he and Chiang could have developed a more sensible plan to prosecute the war. But Stilwell exemplified the superficial mentality that marked many American career military officers. They saw their jobs as to "kill Japs" or "kill Germans" and not to be concerned with politics.

Yet the whole purpose of war is to achieve a political goal. As Karl von Clausewitz had written over a century before, no country would go to war if it could get what it wants without war.8 The end political result a country hopes to achieve is what war is about, not killing enemy soldiers, which is only a way of forcing this result. Stilwell ignored politics and thought only of his way of winning the war.

Yet Stilwell represented the American political presence in China, more than Clarence E. Gauss, the U.S. ambassador, an austere former consular clerk who had little clout with American or Chinese political leaders. Stilwell had the confidence of General Marshall, tantamount to having the confidence of President Roosevelt.9 But Stilwell, a soldier, was never able to rise above the concerns of a field commander to consider the broader question of how China could be swayed to serve American interests. FDR soon saw the political situation required a more flexible man and would have removed Stilwell quite early but hesitated because of Marshall's opposition.

* * * * * * * * * *

In June, 1942, Chiang Kai-shek became incensed with the United States because Marshall sent all twenty B-17 bombers in India to the Mediterranean to help counter the dire threat to the Suez canal by German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Chiang wanted Chennault to have these bombers and didn't care that capture of Suez could lead to the loss of the Middle East and disaster for the Allied cause. Chiang demanded more airplanes, more Hump tonnage and three American divisions. Stilwell, who also wanted an American army, favored Chiang's ultimatum.

But Stilwell strongly opposed a simultaneous Chiang effort to get control of lend-lease. Roosevelt refused and from this point on animosity between Chiang and Stilwell became a fixture. Stilwell privately referred to Chiang as "Peanut" and Madame Chiang as "Snow White," while calling himself "Quarterback." (On a couple of occasions he identified Roosevelt as "Rubberlegs," in malicious mockery of the crippling effects on him of polio).10

Roosevelt was disturbed by Chiang's demands and sent Laughlin Currie, lend-lease coordinator, to China. FDR had been receiving rumors that China might collapse. Though Chiang manufactured many of them, some skeptical observers conceded the possibility. There was no danger of this but Ambassador Gauss pointed out a real threat: that Chiang might bring about an "undeclared peace." To some extent such an unofficial cease-fire was already in effect.11

Lauchlin Currie arrived in Chongqing on July 20. He spent most of his time conferring with Chiang and largely ignored Stilwell and Gauss. Chiang renewed his effort to get Stilwell removed or at least detached from control of lend-lease. Chiang sensed that the arrival of a man with the ear of Roosevelt called for a grand gesture and he announced his decision to accept a Stilwell plan to attack Burma with large Chinese and British forces and stage amphibious landings on the Andaman islands and at Rangoon. Now the British were uninterested in such a grandiose campaign and Chiang craftily covered himself by requiring full British participation by land, sea and air.12

Back in Washington, Currie recommended that Chiang receive lend-lease without the conditions Stilwell was insisting upon, namely, that Chiang get supplies only if he participated in the Burma campaign and carried out army reforms Stilwell wanted. Roosevelt agreed and tied no strings to U.S. support. Chiang was home free: he would get lend-lease whether he did anything to prosecute the war or not. FDR also told Chiang he would build up Chennault's air strength as soon as possible and increase Hump tonnage but he refused to send American troops.13

Currie also recommended that FDR replace Stilwell with a "diplomat" general willing to soothe Chiang. When Roosevelt sent out feelers to remove Stilwell, Secretary Stimson and General Marshall rejected them. Both insisted Stilwell was necessary to get military performance from the Chinese and to reconquer Burma. FDR backed off. However, Stilwell's role diminished to training troops, revising hopeless plans to reform the Chinese army and planning military campaigns that would never come to pass.

Since he had approved the Burma campaign, Chiang agreed to a Stilwell proposal to send 32,000 Chinese troops (the "X" force) to train at Ramgarh, about two-hundred miles northwest of Calcutta. The British raised a host of reasons why the Chinese should not train in India but the real one was that they didn't want Chinese troops helping to retake Burma. London finally removed objections after General Marshall intervened directly. The retrained Chinese troops in India would pose no immediate threat to Chiang. But he dragged his heels on building modernized divisions in Yunnan (the "Y" force) where they might create such a danger.14

However, Chiang in principle supported the Burma campaign because it was apparent the Hump would never carry enough supplies. After long negotiations, Field Marshal Wavell finally agreed to a limited effort using Chinese troops in north Burma to push the Ledo road to the Burma road beginning in spring, 1943.15 But he came up with numerous reasons why the full Stilwell plan to recapture all Burma was impossible. His real reason was that the British wanted no part of the project until they could do it more or less alone. Stilwell had a hard time but convinced Chiang to carry out the limited campaign to open the Ledo road.16

However, Stilwell's proposed northern Burma campaign was upstaged by General Chennault's remarkably simplistic idea for winning the war. Chennault and Chiang got an ally in Wendell Willkie, the unsuccessful Republican candidate for president and an internationalist, whom FDR sent to China and other points on a round-the-world tour of "personal diplomacy" in autumn, 1942.17 Willkie snubbed both Stilwell and Ambassador Gauss but succumbed to Chennault and Chiang and especially to Madame Chiang. Willkie's book One World sold a million copies and installments appeared in newspapers throughout the U.S. In it, Willkie praised Nationalist China and found Chiang Kai-shek "even bigger than his legendary reputation." At least as important as his public-relations value was Willkie's usefulness in promoting the Chiang-Chennault air-power plan.

Willkie willingly agreed to carry back a letter from Chennault to FDR. In it, Chennault asked for "full authority as the American military commander in China" and promised that, with an air force kept up to 105 fighters and thirty medium and twelve heavy bombers, he could "accomplish the downfall of Japan" in six months to a year. He promised he could destroy ten or twenty Japanese aircraft to one American loss, soon leaving Japan with negligible aerial defense. He could then "burn up" Japan's industrial areas.

It was a heady prescription for easy victory and perfectly foolish. Even if the Japanese would lose ten or twenty aircraft to Channault's one, which was doubtful, there was one glaring error in his facile solution.18 This was, as Stilwell pointed out to anybody who would listen, that the Japanese would destroy the American air bases as soon as Chennault's operations began to hurt them. Chennault was an extreme example of the American "flyboy" mentality of World War II. He knew little about ground fighting and held an exaggerated view of what aircraft could do to deter ground offensives.

Chennault got support directly from Madame Chiang, who arrived in New York on November 27, 1942, for an American visit that lasted until May, 1943. Her ostensible reason was treatment for a recurrent skin rash but her real purpose was to promote the Nationalists. Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR's wife, visited her in the hospital and, seeing she seemed so "small and delicate," invited her to stay in the White House, where she moved in early January. She was a demanding and surly guest, expecting fawning servants everywhere.

Madame Chiang, in FDR's words, immediately set about "vamping" important men in the administration and Congress and often succeeded because of her admitted feminine charm. She "enraptured" members when she spoke before a joint session of Congress February 18, 1943, and promoted China well at citizens' meetings around the country. Before Congress she pushed hard for the defeat of Japan before Germany and brought sustained applause when she said the Chinese were convinced it was better "not to accept failure ignominiously but to risk it gloriously." It was a patent lie, the exact opposite of the way her husband operated, but the members of Congress didn't know this. Roosevelt quickly realized she was "as hard as steel" and wanted to get her out of the U.S. (and especially the White House) as soon as possible.19 Madame Chiang's public-relations campaign did not deceive the Nobel prize laureate and novelist of China, Pearl Buck (The Good Earth). She wrote Mrs. Roosevelt that the government of the Chiangs and Soongs was a clique with no claim to be representative. "It is a peculiar and interesting situation," she wrote. "It cannot of course last. I fear an outbreak from the people immediately after the war."20

Chennault's and the Chiangs' hope for acceptance of their air strategy was through Roosevelt. Marshall considered Chennault's views "just nonsense; not bad strategy, just nonsense." But Roosevelt was looking less at logic than at politics and he wanted to keep Chiang satisfied.21

Chiang increased the pressure on January 8, 1943, when he backed out of his promise to attack northern Burma in the spring. Chiang now insisted that any such attempt had to be a combined land and seaborne operation. Chiang's purpose was to force the U.S. to adopt Chennault's air-war plan and avoid doing anything himself.22

As 1943 opened, China was the only Allied-held region from which bombers could strike directly at Japan's industrial cities and the shipping lanes down the East and South China seas. American submarines had been comparatively ineffective because U.S. naval torpedoes were woefully defective. Chennault constituted the only immediate hope of striking a severe blow at the Japanese. In 1943, however, the U.S. Navy corrected the worst defects of its torpedoes and thereafter the American submarine attack on Japanese merchant ships became a massacre: 296 ships and 1,335,000 gross tons sunk in 1943 alone of the barely 6 million tons with which Japan started the war.23

In January, 1943, however, the American military leadership still entertained an illusion that Chiang Kai-shek would see the advantage of rebuilding part of his army to open Burma and protect Chennault's airfields.24 The British had fewer misconceptions Chiang and little interest in a campaign to aid China.25

The United States had finally stopped its retreat in the Pacific in August, 1942, when U.S. marines invaded Guadalcanal in the Solomons and in November the U.S. seized the initiative with a naval victory off Guadalcanal. The U.S. chiefs now began to plan offensives across the central Pacific.

Meanwhile, the Allies also seized the initiative against the Nazis. On November 8, 1942, the Allies had landed in Algeria and Morocco while the British advanced into Libya from Egypt. In Russia, the Germans reeled back in defeat from their 1942 summer offensive and were drawn into destruction of a great German army at Stalingrad, an event that was the turning point of the war. In January, 1943, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill decided to meet at Casablanca in Morocco to hammer out strategy for the Atlantic and Pacific. They tried to get the Soviet premier, Joseph Stalin, to meet with them, but he refused to leave Russia. They didn't even invite Chiang Kai-shek.

Chapter 23: Chennault Tries to Win the War >>

1. The narrative on the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway is drawn from Liddell Hart, World War, pp. 223-4, 343-4, 345-53; Morison, pp. 137-63; Layton, pp. 389-448; Hoyt, pp. 280-99.

2. Naval radio listening posts intercepted about 60 per cent of Japanese naval radio traffic and cryptanalysts could break down less than 40 per cent of it. During the critical period of the Coral sea battle and the leadup to Midway, however, the Japanese kept their JN-25 cipher in use. U.S. naval intelligence officers had unraveled many clues to its secrets. See Layton, pp. 392, 420.

3. Layton, pp. 407-30.

4. Davies, pp. 241-2; Romanus & Sunderland, Mission, pp. 135-6; 151-7; Tuchman, p. 398-9.

5. Schaller, pp. 103-04; Tuchman, pp. 391-2.

6. China Watch, p. 53; Tuchman, p. 406.

7. Romanus & Sunderland, Mission, pp. 154-5; Tuchman, p. 392.

8. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited with an introduction by Anatol Rapaport (translation published by J.J. Graham 1908); Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1968, pp. 109-10; 119; 122, 402; Peter Parat, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986, pp. 199-201; China Watch, pp. 53-54.

9. Romanus & Sunderland, Mission, p. 161; Schaller, p. 53; Davies, pp. 163-4, 246.

10. Romanus & Sunderland, Mission, pp. 157-8, 163-5, 168-77; B.H. Liddell Hart, ed., The Rommel Papers, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1953, pp. 225-32; Liddell Hart, World War, p. 276; Tuchman, pp. 394-5, 401.

11. Tuchman, pp. 389-90, 402; Romanus & Sunderland, Mission, pp. 183-4; Davies, p. 247.

12. Schaller, pp. 106-07, 111-4; Davies, pp. 250-4; Tuchman, pp. 406-09, 414-5; Romanus & Sunderland, Mission, pp. 173-83.

13. Romanus & Sunderland, Mission, pp. 190, 222-32; Tuchman, pp. 397-8, 415-6; Dallek, pp. 357-8; Schaller, pp. 114-5.

14. Romanus & Sunderland, Mission, pp. 179-80, 212-20; Schaller, pp. 107-08; Tuchman, pp. 395, 404, 407, 437-8.

15. Romanus & Sunderland, Mission, p. 255.

16. Romanus & Sunderland, Choice, pp. 248-50; Tuchman, p. 439.

17. Schaller, pp. 118-9; Romanus & Sunderland, Choice, pp. 250-4; Tuchman, 424-32.

18. As Barbara Tuchman points out (Tuchman, p. 431), the U.S. ultimately used nine army air forces and ninety aircraft carriers (mounting 14,800 naval aircraft) to attack Japan. See also Liddell Hart, World War, pp. 603-4, 690-1.

19. Romanus & Sunderland, Choice, pp. 254, 261; Tuchman, pp. 433-4, 446-51; Schaller, pp. 119-20; Dallek, pp. 387-8.

20. Tuchman, p. 452; John M. Blum, From the Morgenthau Diaries, three volumes, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959-67, vol. 3, p. 105.

21. Tuchman, pp. 432, 434.

22.. Romanus & Sunderland, Choice, pp. 258-61; Tuchman, p. 444.

23. Liddell Hart, World War, p. 682; Romanus & Sunderland, Mission, pp. 269-70. In the first year of the war, the empire lost a net 1 million of its original 6 million tons. The Combined Chiefs of Staff estimated that when the Japanese were down to 4 million tons they would be hard pressed to maintain their island garrisons. See FRUS, Washington and Casablanca, p. 718. Toshikazu Kase, a member of the Japanese foreign ministry, reported that Japan lost 1,156,000 tons of shipping between April, 1942, and March, 1943, with the vast bulk of the losses occurring in the last six months. Japanese shipyards were unable to replace more than a fraction of the vessels lost. In January, 1943, new building restored only one-tenth of the shipping sunk. Shipyards began an emergency program of building wooden ships, due to the shortage of steel. These wooden ships were vulnerable to attack and also very slow. They required two months for a voyage from Japan to Singapore. By May, 1943, shipping available for civilian use had declined to 1,250,000 tons, inadequate to maintain the national economy. As a result, the Japanese standard of living dropped drastically. See Kase, pp. 66-67. At the beginning of 1943, Japan had 5.2 million tons of shipping, not including tankers. At the end of 1943 this figure had declined to 4.1 million, a net loss of 1.1 million tons. Tanker tonnage actually increased in 1943, however, from 686,000 to 863,000 tons. Although the U.S. Navy improved its inadequate torpedoes, it was not until September 1, 1943, that it isolated the fatal weakness of the warhead exploder mechanism of the (then) main submarine torpedo, the steam-powered Mark XIV: on perfect (90-degree) hits the exploder mechanism was crushed before it struck the fulminate firing caps. When Mark XIVs struck at 45 degrees, a bad shot, only about half were duds. Navy experts corrected this defect and by the end of 1943 the Mark XIV was much more effective. In fall 1943 the navy also began delivering the electric-powered Mark XVIII torpedo and worked out most of its bugs by the end of the year. In 1944 the Mark XVIII became the principal submarine torpedo. See Clay Blair, Jr., Silent Victory: the U.S. Submarine War against Japan, Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1975, pp. 435-9, 509-11, 552, 554, 694.

24. Romanus & Sunderland, Mission, pp. 262-6; Bryant, pp. 445-6.

25. British and Americans leaders went over the subject in detail at the Trident conference in Washington in May, 1943. See FRUS, Washington and Quebec, pp. 24-387.