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