During World War II, it was sometimes hard to know who hated the Chinese Nationalist commander Chiang Kai-shek more: his sworn enemy, the Chinese Communist Party, and its leader Mao Zedong — or the Americans. It is a little known fact that at least twice during the long course of the war, senior officials of the United States considered assassinating Chiang, who was fighting the Japanese on the side of the Americans. During the Cairo Conference in November 1943, attended by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Chiang, Roosevelt met privately with his senior commander in China, Maj. Gen. Joseph Stilwell. “Big boy,” Stilwell said when he got back to China’s wartime capital Chongqing, quoting Roosevelt to his chief of staff, Gen. Frank “Pinky” Dorn, “if you can’t get along with Chiang and can’t replace him, get rid of him once and for all. You know what I mean. Put in someone you can manage.”
Stilwell, who made no secret of his contempt for Chiang, told Dorn to “cook up a workable scheme and await orders.” Dorn did just that, devising a plan that would have been worthy of a mass-market thriller. Stillwell would take Chiang on a flight to Ramgarh in northeast India to inspect Chinese troops being trained there, as part of the effort to improve the Nationalists’ backward army. The pilot would pretend to have engine trouble and order his crew and passengers to bail out. Chiang would be escorted to the door of the plane wearing a faulty parachute and told to jump. “I believe it would work,” Stilwell told Dorn.
Even before the Cairo Conference, Stilwell had told Carl F. Eifler, the senior American intelligence officer in China, that to fight the war successfully there, “it would be necessary to get Chiang out of the way.” Eifler determined that a botulinum toxin, which would have been undetectable in an autopsy, would be an effective weapon. In a May 1944 meeting at his headquarters in Burma, however, Stilwell told Eifler that he’d changed his mind about eliminating Chiang. Nothing further was done.
This American (and Chinese) vexation with Chiang persisted for decades — even after he fled to Taiwan — resulting in a widespread conventional wisdom that he was one of the great incompetents of history. Indeed, it would be pointless to deny his faults. Especially after the United States came into the war at the end of 1941, he frequently refused to go on the offensive against Japan, keeping several hundred thousand of his best troops in reserve to guard against the expansion of Mao’s party in the north. At Cairo, Roosevelt wondered aloud to his son Elliot “why Chiang’s troops aren’t fighting at all.” And Chiang was no liberal democrat: His much feared secret police, which Stilwell likened to the Gestapo, maintained a regime of surveillance, imprisonment, and — on occasion — execution of real and suspected opponents.
And yet, the view of Chiang in the United States has softened in recent years — a trend marked by the 2009 book The Generalissimo, a major biography by the historian Jay Taylor, which gave Chiang more credit for his brave leadership under impossible circumstances than previous historians. The view of Chiang has also shifted on both mainland China and Taiwan, reflecting changing political circumstances in both places. For Beijing, which just held a splashy military parade on Sept. 3 to celebrate its wartime victory over Japan, there have been far fewer negative comments about Chiang, intransigent anti-Communist though he was. Conversely, on Taiwan, the one part of China that he was able to preserve from Maoist dictatorship, Chiang’s stature has steadily declined.
Why the shift? Especially in the United States, there’s the realization that getting rid of Chiang would in all likelihood have not produced a happy result. It is hard to imagine that it would have altered the tragically paradoxical outcome of World War II in Asia: The United States fought for four years to prevent a hostile power, Japan, from controlling China, only to see the country fall to a Communist dictatorship closely allied to the Soviet Union, an even more menacingly hostile power.
Furthermore, many Americans at the time subsequently underestimated both the magnitude of the task that Chiang faced as his country’s wartime leader and his achievements against extraordinary odds. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any alternative Chinese figure doing much better.
Contrary to popular perception, for example, Chiang did fight: He mounted a brave, veritably suicidal, resistance to the initial full-scale Japanese invasion of 1937. According to Stilwell’s replacement, Gen. Albert C. Wedemeyer, the battle for Shanghai, in which China lost thousands of its best troops, was at the time the world’s bloodiest battle since Verdun in 1916. Japan’s military leaders had predicted that the war in China would be over quickly. It could have been — if Chiang surrendered and joined forces with the Japanese in a renewed effort to eradicate the Communists. But while that may have been tempting, Chiang never did. His defiance tied down a million Japanese troops who otherwise would have been available for battle against American forces. For the first four years of its eight-year war of resistance against Japan, until Pearl Harbor pushed the United States into the battle in December 1941, China fought alone.
It was this that so impressed Wedemeyer. While Stilwell saw the Chinese leader as “a grasping, bigoted, ungrateful little rattlesnake,” Wedemeyer was unrestrained in his admiration. Chiang’s call on China’s people to “sacrifice and fight to the bitter end” was, Wedemeyer believed, “more gallant and resolute than Churchill’s famous ‘blood, sweat and tears’ speech.” Given his situation, moreover, his military strategy of “endeavoring to dissipate Japanese strength and forcing the enemy to overextend his lines” made perfect sense, Wedemeyer felt, and so did his diversion of troops to prevent Communist expansion. Chiang understood — as most Americans, focused exclusively on the defeat of Japan, did not — that once the war ended there would be a fight to the finish between him and the Communists. Chiang maintained, to any Americans who would listen, that if successful the Communists would impose a totalitarian dictatorship allied with the Soviet Union. And Mao’s total victory in 1949 proved him right.
As both mainland China and Taiwan observe the 70th anniversary of the victory over Japan, Beijing’s position on Chiang as a wartime leader has edged closer to Wedemeyer’s than to Stilwell’s. This took decades. During the 1960s and 1970s, when Mao still ruled China, the propaganda emanating from Beijing spoke about “American imperialism and its running dog Chiang Kai-shek.” After the anti-imperialist rhetoric died away in China in the 1980s, Beijing portrayed Chiang as a reactionary servant of international capitalism who, but for the blessing of the party’s victory, would have prevented the “new China” from being born. Nor was Chiang given any credit for the victory over Japan — that went to Communist guerrillas and Mao’s theories of people’s war.
There hasn’t been an official verdict on Chiang of the sort that the party has decreed, for example, in connection with Mao, declaring him to have been 70 percent correct and 30 percent wrong. Still, in recent years, the accepted opinion about Chiang has clearly shifted in a positive direction, starting with a recognition of his role resisting the Japanese invasion. In 2009, for example, as China marked the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the documentary The Founding of a Republic depicted Chiang as an essentially honorable figure misled by bad advisors. Since then, official exhibits on Chiang have dropped much of the tone of enmity that previously prevailed — and replaced it with a mostly respectful view of him as the country’s legitimate wartime leader.
The 70th anniversary commemoration seems to have brought the trend regarding Chiang to a new stage, with many in Beijing seeming to recognize that Chiang wasn’t only a patriot but that he deserved credit for the defeat of Japan — a conclusion that American historians have only reached recently. Yang Tianshi, a member of the official Chinese Institute of Modern History, has been prominent on Chinese web portals and in television interviews, explicitly rejecting old Communist arguments that Chiang refused to fight the Japanese. Given the tremendous disadvantages that encumbered Chiang, especially China’s material weakness and political fragmentation, Yang has argued his “patriotic contribution” was actually rather extraordinary. “Chiang Kai-shek never wavered in his determination to resist the Japanese,” Yang has written. “He was a nationalist and a patriot.”
Paradoxically, while Beijing has expressed deeper respect for Chiang, his standing among the Taiwanese has steadily declined. Chiang, who ruled over the island from his arrival in 1949 to his death at the age of 87 in 1975, exercised a regime of terrifying repression. Tens of thousands of people, including much of the Taiwanese educated elite, were executed in a White Terror that lasted until 1987. In the early years of Chiang’s control over Taiwan — which proudly called itself “Free China” — the island was as repressive as the mainland under Mao.
Taiwanese remembered Chiang’s repressions as the island became a democracy in the mid-1990s. Chiang’s official stature remains high — his picture, for example, adorns Taiwan’s currency — but he’s less venerated than before. The vast park in the middle of Taipei that contains Chiang’s memorial hall was formerly called Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Square. In the early 1990s, it was the scene of major pro-democracy demonstrations — in recognition of which its name was changed to Liberty Square in 2007. (The imposing, white-walled museum inside is still called the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.) It’s a major tourist site for mainland tourists, who pose for pictures in front of a giant portrait of Chiang near the entrance — something that few Taiwanese seem interested in doing. And Taipei’s international airport, once named for Chiang, is now just Taoyuan International Airport, named after the city south of Taipei where the airport is situated. “[Chiang Kai-shek] is being forgotten,” said Lin Jih-wen, a political scientist at Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s main research organization.
More important is Feb. 28, the Taiwanese national holiday called Peace Memorial Day. It commemorates the massacre of between 18,000 and 28,000 Taiwanese by Kuomintang troops in Taipei, starting on that day in 1947. When Chiang was alive, what’s known as the 228 Incident was publicly unmentionable. But a major museum, founded in 1997 and located in 228 Peace Memorial Park, tells the full story of the massacre. Every year on the anniversary holiday, the president of the country rings a bell in honor of the victims and formally bows in apology to their family members. (Imagine the rulers of Beijing bowing their heads in repentance to the family members of those killed in the 1989 suppression of the student-led demonstrations centered on Tiananmen Square.)
There is a political meaning in this. The favorable view of Chiang emerging on the mainland has the advantage of being closer to the truth than the old propaganda caricature, but it also fits China’s current goal, which is to lure Taiwan into such interdependency that a merging of the two societies will take place almost inevitably. China’s recognition of Chiang’s heroic role in the anti-Japanese resistance is useful because anti-Japan enmity itself is a powerful symbol of Chinese unity. During Chiang’s years in Taiwan, the ubiquitous slogan draped over the island’s highways was huifu dalu — recover the mainland. But even more useful to Beijing now was Chiang’s determined opposition to any suggestion of Taiwanese independence. In other words, the very reason his reputation has declined in Taiwan is the same reason Beijing has refurbished it.
Despite the tremendous proliferation of contacts and relations between Taiwan and the mainland, Taiwanese are not buying the idea of unification. Indeed, with presidential elections coming up in January — which the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party is widely expected to win — reunification seems as far away as ever. Indeed, one reason for the incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou’s deep unpopularity is the widespread suspicion that his eagerness to build ties with the mainland has made Taiwan too susceptible to China’s influence. In July, senior officials of both parties affirmed themselves in favor of what’s called ”the status quo” — no independence, no unification, and no use of force — meaning no use of force by Beijing to bring about unification. A poll conducted in July by the Election Study Center of National Chengchi University showed that over 80 percent of Taiwanese are either in favor of the status quo or in favor of immediate independence, despite China’s strenuous efforts to persuade them otherwise. Less than 3 percent want unification as soon as possible.
In this sense, the elevation of Chiang’s status is an element of Beijing’s attempted seduction of Taiwan that seems not to have brought about the desired result. The ruse of history has turned Chiang — whom Mao, like Stilwell, would happily have assassinated — into an ideological role model for Beijing. In other words, an embodiment of the goal of reunification, even if the reunification Chiang had in mind was not acceptable to Beijing.
But now, Chiang’s loss of heroic status is a sign of the island’s drift toward a separate identity from that of the mainland. That is not an outcome that Chiang himself would have wanted, and it’s not one Americans had in mind 70 years ago, when the United States unrealistically hoped that a united, democratic, pro-Western China would emerge from the wreckage of the war. But it will be a difficult one for Beijing to reverse, because it arises from something that China’s leaders don’t generally have to take into account: a genuine expression of the popular will.
The article was produced with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Photo credit: SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images