With rising tensions between the United States China, John Pomfret’s meticulously detailed and colourful history of United States-China relations, The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom, could not be more timely. In Pomfret’s telling, the US love affair with China has been marked by cycles of exuberance and deflationary despair, with China reciprocating in equally exuberant, sometimes despairing, often angry, tandem.
The former China correspondent for the Associated Press writes, “New expectations follow inevitable disillusion with every spin of history’s wheel.”
Put aside new expectations for the moment. We are currently in a phase of mutual disillusion. “China, the narrative goes, pilfers American jobs, swipes its secrets, stockpiles its debt, and is now scheming to expel the US Navy from the Western Pacific,” writes Pomfret. He continues, “The Chinese feel dispirited, too. Their leaders expected America to make way for China in the Pacific. In the 1970s, senior American officials assured them that the US would pull its troops from South Korea and step aside as China recovered Taiwan, thereby completing China’s unification.”
In short, for China, the US has reneged on support for its key interests, and for the US, engagement with China has produced the antithesis of the change it feels its investment deserves.
Pomfret’s central thesis is that the current antipathy is predated by a far more bipolar history than most in the US — or in China for that matter — realise. “Many Americans believe that their country’s ties to China began when Richard Nixon travelled there in 1972, ending the Cold War between the two nations,” he writes. “In fact, the two sides have been interacting with and influencing each other since the founding of the United States.” Fortunes made in trade with China from the 1780s, for example, “bankrolled America’s industrial revolution,” and some forty Americans based in the trading port of Canton (Guangzhou) made the US China’s second biggest trading partner after Britain.
But perhaps Pomfret’s greatest strength is spotlighting forgotten moments of euphoria and anguish in a pathologically co-dependent relationship, of Chinese intellectuals looking to the US as a lighthouse for political reform and national rejuvenation, and the US in turn simultaneously beguiled by the enormous potential for trade and the dream of remaking China in its own image as a Christian, democratic nation. That such expectations should lead to disappointment is unsurprising.
It is worth looking back to the mid-twentieth century, when much of the China story, as told by reporters — and later, historians — was based less on reality than agenda-driven wishful thinking. Drawing on recent scholarship, Pomfret attacks a cornerstone of US thinking about China: that Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek was venally corrupt and incompetent and obstructive in terms of US-China interests.
“The idea that Chiang was a closet Fascist has been a foundational myth promoted by left-wing American academics,” writes Pomfret. “It helped explain why a man known as the Generalissimo deserved to lose the civil war to the Chinese Communist Party in 1949.”
The truth is far more complex. As Chiang Kai-shek unified much of warlord-ruled China against enormous odds, and committed millions of troops to fighting the Japanese, various American writers were bewitched by the communist vision of a utopian China. Agnes Smedley, who worked for the Communist International and Soviet Intelligence in China while also writing for the New Republic and the Nation, was one. Edgar Snow, whose best-selling book Red Star Over China provided Mao Zedong with a platform for introducing Chinese communism as a non-ideological, progressive reformist answer to all of China’s problems, was another.
Enter Barbara W. Tuchman, whose enormously influential Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45, first published in 1971, has recently been re-released. In her quietly vitriolic take on Chiang, General Joseph W. Stilwell, otherwise known as “Vinegar Joe” for his acidic no-nonsense intolerance of polite diplomacy, emerges as the strategically brilliant China hand whom Chiang consistently thwarts, to China’s ultimate loss, and America’s salutary humiliation.
Tuchman’s vividly written but flawed account of Chiang’s perfidy — largely based on Stilwell’s diaries — has long been seen by many as a classic cautionary account of the danger of taking China and its corrupt leaders at their word. But she achieves it by glossing over Stilwell’s strategic blunders and his arrogance toward the “Generalissimo”, whom Stilwell, in diary entries, and sometimes in official communiques, referred to as “Peanut” or “G-mo”. Tuchman’s praise for Stilwell is fulsome. Stilwell, by her reckoning, was an intrepid China traveller in search of truth years before he was appointed Chiang Kai-shek’s leading US adviser, at the height of the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945.
“Conventional historiography,” scholar Andrew Nathan has observed, routinely criticises Chiang “for sitting passively through the eight-year Japanese occupation of much of China, as he waited for the United States to join and win the war.” Rather, Nathan notes, drawing on Jay Taylor’s scholarship in The Generalissimo, by strategically withdrawing and drawing Japan ever deeper into China, Chiang “granted Japan a pyrrhic half-victory and set up a stalemate that bled the enemy and contributed to the ultimate outcome [Japanese defeat].”
Tuchman takes the line that Chiang’s victories against the Japanese were uncritical “fairy tales” of false propaganda. What she overlooked at the time was that China had been carved up by the Western powers ahead of the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, treated as a vassal state and left largely defenceless against Japanese aggression, providing Chiang with no good reason to believe that anyone was on his side in a war against Japan, or against the Chinese Communist Party.
In fact, praise for the CCP’s stoic resistance against the Japanese was the greater “fairy tale”. It is today accepted by most Western historians that the CCP lost 3 per cent of the number of troops that Chiang did in engagements with the Japanese.
Against this backdrop, armed with poor intelligence about Japanese massing of troops in Burma, Stilwell fought tooth and nail with Chiang for complete authority over his troops for an offensive to reclaim Burma. As the US press crowed from faraway sidelines with headlines such as “Chinese cavalry routs Jap Panzers in Burma,” Chiang wrote to Churchill to say, “In all my life of long military experience, I have seen nothing to compare with the deplorable unprepared state, confusion and degradation of the war area in Burma.” He was not wrong, despite Stilwell’s conviction that the Chinese divisions provided by Chiang, which he commanded, were poised for victory. As Stillwell floated away from Burma in defeat on a raft on the Uyu River in 1942, the US press was running headlines such as “Invading Jap force crushed by Stilwell”.
When Stilwell was finally recalled from China in October 1944, Tuchman says, “This was a clear statement of the American illusion. Although the Chinese people, as Stilwell had said, had a ‘tremendous cohesion’ that enabled them to withstand bad government, and a cultural unity older and stronger than anything in the United States, the idea that the Kuomintang in only fifteen harassed and embattled years had obtained the same degree of national cohesion as the United States was a fantasy, and not a harmless one.”
Tuchman’s “illusion” and “fantasy” applied equally to almost every aspect of US perceptions of China and its then leader in chief. In 1939, as Tuchman herself admits, the US ranked nineteenth worldwide as a military power — ahead of Bulgaria — but forty-fifth in terms of the percentage of men under arms. The US relationship with China had long centred on trade and the Bible, but the US was far from ready to intervene militarily on China’s behalf because it feared being drawn into open conflict with Japan — until it was forced to by the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941.
Tuchman is at her strongest when she writes on Stilwell’s impatience with US policy. “From where he stood Washington appeared to lack understanding of how developments in the Far East were affecting America and to be paying too much attention to Europe.”
The irony was that he was right, but one wonders whether Tuchman could ever have imagined that it was the CCP, which she tacitly endorsed through her damning indictment of Chiang, that could have made it so.
When Madame Chiang Kai-shek (Soong May-ling), met with foreign journalists recently returned from Yan’an, Shaanxi province, with glowing reports of the CCP’s “integrity, idealism and sacrifice for a cause, she said it was impossible to believe them,” writes Tuchman. “Walking to the window [Soong May-ling] stared out across the river in silence for several minutes and then turned back to the room and spoke the saddest sentence of her life: ‘If what you tell me about them is true, then I can only say they have never known real power.’”
John Pomfret’s history of US-China relations, in part, tells the story of how the CCP acquired the real power Soong referred to. But it does far more than that: it compellingly tells the tortured tale of today’s most important geopolitical relationship.
Tuchman’s Stilwell and the American Experience in China is a product of its time. And perhaps the same will one day be said of Pomfret’s record of how China has arguably become the US chief enemy — economically, militarily, propagandistically, even if only temporarily, as he would likely argue. Today the Chinese continue to display the same “tremendous cohesion” Tuchman referred to — and under a government no better than that of the Kuomintang, and with far less obvious possibilities for evolution into something more tolerable for the Chinese people and global security. Meanwhile, as the US and China move further apart, the possibility of a collision of sorts becomes, ironically, the greater.
John Pomfret, The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present, Henry Holt and Co.: 2016
Barbara W. Tuchman, Stilwell and the American Experience in China: 1911-1945, Random House: 2016