23. Chennault Tries to Win the War

The main immediate results of the Casablanca conference (January 14-24, 1943) were a British-American agreement to attack Sicily and pursue Mediterranean operations in 1943, agreement over British hesitation on a Burma campaign in November, 1943, and the decision, forced by President Roosevelt, to insist upon unconditional surrender of the Axis powers.1

Casablanca also demonstrated British distaste for a cross-channel invasion of France and renewed the determination of American leaders to insist upon it.2 Since the U.S. had the most power, it ultimately won.3

The unconditional-surrender declaration transformed the war into a moral struggle, with political aspects minimized. Although it resonated with American tradition which sought moral or religious overtones in most public policy, the declaration undercut the true purpose of war, which is for winning nations to gain their political ends and deny losing nations theirs.4 Instead of war being a violent but straightforward method of getting one's own way, the declaration turned the war into a crusade. Western Allied leaders, especially Americans, found they had to view the war as a contest in which all actions against the evil foe contributed to the common victory. In this light, the advances of the Russians were equally as beneficial as British and American advances. But the Russians, who never for a moment lost sight of the political purpose of war, recognized that every step their soldiers took insured their postwar dominance over the territory they occupied.5

* * * * * * * * * *

Although Roosevelt and Churchill had excluded Chiang Kai-shek from Casablanca, Roosevelt had supported Secretary of State Cordell Hull in his efforts to end unequal treaties and extraterritoriality in China. This doctrine became perniciously engrained in Chinese affairs after the Opium War of 1840-42. It detracted greatly from Chinese sovereignty by granting foreign countries the right to try their nationals for infractions committed in China. It gave foreign lands the right to station troops in China and permitted virtually independent governments in the "treaty ports." On January 11, 1943, the United States and Britain separately signed treaties with China renouncing extraterritoriality. Though France was not a party, it could not hope to reestablish special privileges after the war.6 Britain, despite its treaty, did not give up claim to Hong Kong, however.7

* * * * * * * * * *

By planning a Burma campaign (code-named Anakim) at the end of the monsoon in November, 1943, the conferees at Casablanca opted for a major role for China as the platform from which to bomb Japan. Anakim called for joint attacks to open Burma by British and Chinese and a British amphibious landing on the Andaman islands and Rangoon. But Britain didn't like the idea and Americans were concerned that it would take a year or longer to accomplish.8

Therefore, Roosevelt sought a quicker and less costly way of striking at Japan.9 His solution was to give General Chennault a shot at his idea of winning the war single-handedly by bombing.10 FDR's real purpose was mollifying Chiang and there is little evidence he worried too much about the problem burdening Marshall and Stilwell: that the very success of a Chennault air assault would bring the Japanese army down on his bases like the wolf on the fold.

Roosevelt sent a deputation to call on Chiang Kai-shek to discuss Chennault's plan and convince him to approve Anakim.11 Chiang did approve Anakim, scheduled to start on November 15, 1943, and be completed before the next monsoon in May, 1944.12

In a letter to FDR on February 7, 1943, Chiang formally asked for a separate command for Chennault, five-hundred aircraft by November and 10,000 tons of supplies a month over the Hump. Along with Chiang's message went a letter from Stilwell containing two memorable sentences: "Chiang Kai-shek has been very irritable and hard to handle, upping his demands no matter what is given him and this attitude will continue until he is talked to in sterner tones. For everything we do for him we should exact a commitment from him."

These two letters finally precipitated President Roosevelt to cut the Gordian knot into which Chinese-American relations had been twisted for nearly a year. First, he directed that Chennault be given his own air force, the Fourteenth, along with the second silver star of a major general, and that he have complete control over his operations and tactics, "with Stilwell's approval." Second, he asked the War Department to try to get the 2,500 tons of supplies a month to Chennault which he needed for an all-out effort.

Then, in a letter to Marshall, FDR delivered a stinging rebuke of Stilwell and the kind of representative he was for the United States. Roosevelt acknowledged the Generalissimo was irritable and always upping his demands. But when Stilwell "speaks of talking to him in sterner tones, he goes about it just the wrong way." Chiang, he said, "came up the hard way to become the undisputed leader of four-hundred million people." It was an enormously difficult job and besides, FDR said, Chiang finds it necessary to maintain his supremacy. "He is the chief executive as well as the commander in chief and one cannot speak sternly to a man like that or exact commitments from him the way we might do from the sultan of Morocco."13

In making this judgment, Roosevelt ignored the Chinese Communist movement, the corruption and incompetence of Chiang's government, his unwillingness to contribute to the war and the indifference to human suffering the Nationalists were exhibiting in Henan province where many people were dyiny from a drought-caused famine.14

FDR was right that Stilwell's methods of dealing with Chiang were "just the wrong way." The upright, narrow-minded, task-oriented, professional soldier Stilwell was the wrong man for the job. Roosevelt supported Chiang, for all his faults, because he symbolized unity in China. Even the Reds, who despised him, declined to defy Chiang openly.15 Roosevelt probably felt he had to accept the existing regime since war, like politics, makes strange bedfellows.

The pity is that FDR did not see his alliance with Chiang as only a wartime expedient and developed no strategy for dealing rationally with the realities of China. The solution actually lay within his grasp: to carry on the war as best he could but to keep hands-off regarding the regime that emerged afterward. Any Chinese government, Red or Nationalist, would have had interests in East Asia that almost perfectly mirrored American interests: opposition to Soviet encroachments, preoccupation with internal development and normal commercial ties with other countries. Although Americans would have opposed a Communist regime on principle, they were looking for allies who would support their interests.

* * * * * * * * * *

General Marshall loyally defended Stilwell.16 But despite Marshall's support, Stilwell's position changed basically. As Romanus and Sunderland, the official army historians of the China theater, wrote, Roosevelt's message was "repudiation without recall." Chennault's star rose, Stilwell's set. The question was whether Chennault, who had promised so much, would be able to deliver.17

Stilwell set to work trying to develop the "Y-force" in Yunnan, a task hamstrung by Chiang Kai-shek's failure to deliver sufficient men to the training centers and by positive hindrance on the part of He Yingqin, Chinese army chief of staff, who saw the Y-force, and its commander, Chen Cheng, as a threat. Nevertheless, Stilwell made slow progress.

Meanwhile, in December, 1942, American engineers, along with thousands of Indian workers, commenced building the Ledo road, following a 478-mile trace between Ledo and junction with the Burma road. The first section cut through jungle and forested mountains of Assam and northern Burma, which the Japanese had never occupied. The engineers and Indians completed forty-seven miles of all-weather graveled road by May, 1943, when the monsoon halted most work.18

Another operation, and a strange one, was going on in Burma. British Brigadier Orde Charles Wingate led an experimental foray of guerrilla-like "Chindits" (named after Chinthe, the mythical Burmese beast, half lion, half eagle) into the country from February to April. Wingate, a distant cousin of T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), developed a force of lightly armed, fast-moving foot soldiers supplied by air drops to operate behind Japanese lines. The Chindits did little damage, lost a third of their 3,200 men but showed that Allied soldiers could operate in the jungle.19

* * * * * * * * * *

Chennault now had his air force but Stilwell still controlled the supplies flying over the Hump. Each wanted the bulk of them, Chennault for his air missions and Stilwell for Y-force. Due to weather, insufficient aircraft and inadequate airfields, Hump deliveries were averaging only 3,000 tons a month, though Chennault alone needed 2,500. Recognizing Stilwell's fixation on Y-force, Roosevelt ordered thirty more transports on the Hump run, despite a great shortage of them. FDR could hardly have shown more forcefully that he intended to give Chennault his head.20

The president also jumped at a Chiang proposal that FDR talk with Chennault about his plans and only agreed to bring Stilwell back with him upon the remonstration of Marshall.21 The U.S. and British leadership was planning a strategy conference in Washington, May 12-25, 1943, which Churchill code-named Trident. There Stilwell could discuss Anakim and Chennault could talk about his air campaign.22

Chennault outlined a two-month campaign to wrest air superiority from the Japanese, then bombing of Japanese shipping along the Yangzi and in the South China sea, ultimately sweeping on to bomb Japan itself by the end of the year. Chennault believed he might sink half-a-million tons of Japanese shipping in six months, after which the Japanese would begin withdrawing from their outlying bases. In response, Stilwell repeated his old formula: "Any attempt to bomb Japan is going to bring a prompt and violent reaction on the ground."23

FDR was chummy with Chennault and asked Chennault to write him directly outside of military channels. Stilwell's interview with the president didn't go well. He sat humped over with his head down. FDR seized on the situation by asking Marshall afterward whether a sick man shouldn't be relieved. Marshall briskly defended Stilwell's health but was disappointed in him.

Roosevelt decided to give full support for Chennault's bombing program and reduce the Anakim campaign. Roosevelt still advocated a northern Burma campaign to open the Ledo road but now opposed British amphibious landings to capture Rangoon because he had decided Anakim was not worth alienating the British.

One of the two reasons Churchill wanted the Trident conference was to drop Anakim and substitute an attack on the northern tip of Sumatra, as a step toward recapturing Singapore.24 The other was to plan the invasion of Sicily and what to do afterward, implying renewal of the British effort for a Mediterranean strategy against Germany.25

The American chiefs of staff clashed at Trident with their British opposite numbers over Burma and the American priority for an invasion across the English channel. The Americans won a commitment for Overlord, the invasion of Normandy, with a target date of May 1, 1944.26 But, because Roosevelt was now allied with them, the British won abandonment of a major attack in Burma. The Combined Chiefs of Staff substituted a plan to build up deliveries over the Hump and to emphasize Chennault's air operations. They also agreed vaguely to the northern Burma campaign to open a land route to China.27.

The decisions on China at Trident flew in the face of the official position of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. On May 19 they circulated a "strategic plan for the defeat of Japan." It called for the capture of Burma and an American advance across the Pacific to retake the Philippines. Thereafter, Chinese forces aided by an American and British amphibious operation would seize Hong Kong. The U.S. then would establish air bases in China "to launch an overwhelming bombing offensive against Japan."28

This plan showed that the U.S. chiefs in spring, 1943, held no vision of alternative island bases in the Pacific from which to launch an air offensive against Japan. It thus explains the chiefs' tenacity in pressing for Anakim. The island-hopping strategy still had not been formulated. The chiefs knew Chennault's idea of defeating Japan with a few aircraft was naive. From the experience of bombing Germany they realized it would take thousands, not dozens, of planes to hobble Japan. Therefore the requisite offensive could never be sustained by shipments over the Hump or even the Burma road.

Nevertheless, the chief executive of the United States had spoken. He wanted to give Chennault's ideas a shot to keep Chiang happy and in the war.

Roosevelt granted Chennault overwhelming priority for Hump deliveries.29 He also ordered Hump capacity built up. Accordingly, the Combined Chiefs of Staff gave top importance to increasing the capacity of airfields in Assam to accommodate the additional transport planes now on the way.30 This set in motion a frantic effort to improve existing fields and build new ones. Deliveries rose from 4,500 tons in July to 13,500 in December, 1943.31

Chennault moved quickly to strike at the Japanese in the Yangzi valley, northern Indochina and the South China sea.32 Meanwhile Japanese bombers attacked the new American bases. By mid-July Chennault's air force and the Japanese had settled into a pattern. B-24s and B-25s sought Japanese shipping and P-40s looked for Japanese defending aircraft. The Fourteenth Air Force claimed 220,000 tons of shipping sunk through December, 1943, though the official assessment after the war showed it had actually sunk only 50,000 tons.

Although Chennault's fighters continued to score more victories than the Japanese, they were worn down by attrition. But Chennault's biggest problem was supplies. Only enough were arriving in August for each aircraft to fly ten missions. A B-24 heavy had to make three trips to Assam for fuel and bombs in order to assemble enough supplies for one operational sortie.33 When the summer ended Chennault claimed to have shot down 153 Japanese aircraft at a cost of 27 American craft. Results were not close to the ten- or twenty-to-one ratio Chennault had predicted and by autumn he did not have air superiority.34

Chapter 24: China's Moment on the World Stage >>

1. Dallek, pp. 370-6; Churchill, Hinge, pp. 674-95; Schaller, p. 121; Tuchman, pp. 454-6; Romanus & Sunderland, Mission, pp. 269-72; Bryant, pp. 439-76; Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, I Was There, New York: Whittlesey, 1950, p. 145. The full record of the Casablanca conference is given in FRUS, Washington and Casablanca, pp. 487-849. The decision on Anakim is given on pages 616-7, 628-9, 673. The decision contained the proviso that the Combined Chiefs of Staff would decide on actual mounting of the Burma attack by July, 1943.

2. FRUS, Washington and Casablanca, pp. 583-5, 618-9; FRUS, Washington and Quebec, pp. 45, 53.

3. FRUS, Washington and Casablanca, pp. 539, 570-1; Bryant, pp. 530, 595.

4. For an excellent analysis of Karl von Clausewitz on the purpose of war, see Peter Paret, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986, chapter 7, "Clausewitz," by Peter Paret, pp. 186-213.

5. Dallek, pp. 373-6; FRUS, Casablanca, pp. 506, 635, 704, 727, 835, 837, 841; FRUS, Cairo and Tehran, p. 513; Churchill, Hinge, pp. 683-91; Wedemeyer, pp. 186-7.

6. France officially gave up its privileges in China in 1946 in exchange for evacuation of French Indochina north of the 16th parallel by Nationalist Chinese troops.

7. Feis, pp. 61-62; Tuchman, p. 451; Cambridge, vol. 13, p. 533; FRUS, China, 1943, pp. 690, 704-09.

8. Romanus & Sunderland, Mission, pp. 305-06; FRUS, Washington and Quebec, p. 131.

9. Ibid., pp. 270-1; FRUS, Washington and Casablanca, pp. 603, 615.

10. Ibid., p. 277; FRUS, Washington and Casablanca, p. 561, 718-9; Robert Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins: an Intimate History, New York: Harper, 1948, pp. 681-2.

11. Romanus & Sunderland, Mission, pp. 272, 279; Tuchman, p. 456; Dallek, p. 385; Henry H. Arnold, Global Mission, New York: Harper, 1949, p. 419.

12. The Anakim plan called for 100,000 Chinese troops to make three main thrusts: one with seven divisions toward Myitkyina and Bhamo in northern Burma and two smaller thrusts, one toward Lashio, terminus of the Burma road, the other toward Kengtung, leading to the Shan States of southeastern Burma. The British were to advance from Imphal to the Chindwin river in central Burma with three divisions (45,000 men) and join the Chinese at Mandalay, while another force captured Akyab on the southwestern Burma coast. British troops also would land at three points on the Burmese coast. The plan envisioned an assault against Rangoon in January, 1944. See Romanus & Sunderland, Mission, pp. 273, 276.

13. Ibid., pp. 275-83.

14. Tuchman, pp. 452-3; Varg, p. 72; FRUS, China, 1943, pp. 208-09, 221, 224-5, 268-9, 300-01, 421-2; White, pp. 166-78.

15. Varg, pp. 68, 120.

16. Romanus & Sunderland, Mission, pp. 280-3.

17. Another circumstance, "the bordello affair," soured relations between Stilwell and Chennault. Chennault found his men were being felled by venereal diseases picked up in Kunming's notorious Slit Alley. Combat operations suffered. Chennault realized it was hopeless to lock up the young Americans at night. He sent an air corps plane, complete with medical crew, to India and there acquired twelve healthy Indian prostitutes, brought them back to Kunming on the plane and set them up in a brothel. Later he got reinforcements from Guilin, famous all over China for its beautiful women. The bordello served its function well. But Stilwell, when he learned about it, was scandalized not only by a semiofficial U.S. whorehouse but that Chennault had used a U.S. plane to bring whores over the Hump. Also, army criminial-investigation agents discovered the bordello had become a smuggling center for gold, drugs, foreign currency, gems, post-exchange supplies and gasoline. Stilwell read out Chennault and ordered the brothel closed. See Search, pp. 139-40; Tuchman, p. 482.

18. Romanus & Sunderland, Mission, pp. 306-08, 348-50.

19. Liddell Hart, World War, pp. 366-8; Romanus & Sunderland, Mission, pp. 303-04; Tuchman, pp. 491-2.

20. Romanus & Sunderland, Mission, pp. 283-9, 335.

21. Ibid., pp. 317-8.

22. The full record of the Trident conference is contained in FRUS, Washington and Quebec, pp. 1-387. British viewpoints on Trident occur in Churchill, Hinge, pp. 782-811, and Bryant, pp. 477-527. See also Tuchman, pp. 472-8; Romanus & Sunderland, Mission, pp. 319-20, 326-35.

23. Ibid., pp. 320-7; Tuchman, pp. 468-72; Claire Lee Chennault, Way of a Fighter, New York: Putnam, 1949, pp. 225-6.

24. Bryant, pp. 494-5.

25. FRUS, Washington and Quebec, pp. 15-16.

26. FRUS, Washington and Quebec, pp. 118, 281-2.

27. Ibid., pp. 57-70, 76-77, 124, 134-7, 142.

28. Ibid., pp. 124-6, 289-93.

29. Ibid., pp. 108-09, 296-7; Romanus & Sunderland, Mission, pp. 326-7.

30. FRUS, Washington and Quebec, pp. 76-77, 85.

31. Romanus & Sunderland, Mission, pp. 284, 341-5.

32. Ibid., pp. 337-41, 345-7.

33. FRUS, Washington and Quebec, p. 859.

34. Romanus & Sunderland, Mission, pp. 337-8.