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Kurt Kuhlmann


HST 261


Review:                  Barbara Tuchman, Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945 (Bantam Books, 1972).

Stilwell and the American Experience in China is really two books in one.  First, it is a detailed biography of General Joseph Stilwell, whose mission in China during World War II provided fuel for a bitter political controversy after the Chinese Communists drove out the Nationalists in 1949.  This connection between Stilwell, China, and the dispute over who "lost" China gave Barbara Tuchman a wonderful opportunity to address a larger issue, "the American Experience in China."  This "second book" is a cultural and political history of China's relations with the United States, and how this led to the fall of Chiang Kai-Shek, America's chosen ally.

Tuchman skilfully intertwines Stilwell's biography with the more general history of China, using his experience in China to illustrate American experience with China as a whole.  Her basic thesis is that "China was a problem for which there was no American solution." (p. 678)  Stilwell's wartime mission, like all American attempts to remake China in their own image, was unachievable.  Stilwell was supposed to oversee the use of Lend-Lease material to increase the fighting power of Chinese armies in order to fight the Japanese, but this was not Chiang Kai-Shek's goal.  He viewed the Communists as his biggest threat, and intended to use American aid to prepare for the showdown with them after the war.  He was not interested in fighting the Japanese, but simply in surviving until they were defeated by the Americans.

Tuchman does a masterful job of both her chosen tasks.  Stilwell is portrayed sympathetically, but without falling into hero-worship.  She clearly admires him, but she does not hesitate to point out his weaknesses and mistakes.  She also manages to take a remarkably sympathetic portrait of Chiang Kai-Shek.  Considering that she is working with Stilwell's diaries, in which he recorded his daily frustrations with Chiang, it would have been easy for her to portray Chiang as a childish bungler, as he often appeared to Western eyes.  But she instead explains Chiang's actions, and those of other Chinese leaders, in terms of the cultural clash between East and West.  We often get only the American perspective on this clash, but Tuchman shows how the Americans often appeared to be acting just as irrationally to the Chinese as the Chinese did to the Americans.

The book's single weakness is its rather intimidating length, but this is more than compensated for by Tuchman's journalistic style.  She is adept at using small details to illuminate a larger point she wants to make.  The maps deserve special notice, covering the appropriate areas, and actually showing all the places mentioned in the text.  The notes and bibliography are complete.  All in all, Stilwell is a rebuke to those historians who argue that "popular" (i.e. readable) history and rigorous history cannot be combined.  Tuchman has fulfilled all the requirements of a work of professional history--using primary sources, breaking new ground in research, an analytic framework, documentation--while still writing a wonderfully descriptive account of one man's role in the cultural clash between China and America.

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