The Generalissimo

Chiang Kai-shek has been unfairly condemned by history, argues a new biography.

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Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek stands condemned by many historians and journalists as a dictator lacking ideals and significant achievements. In a new biography, The Generalissimo, Jay Taylor sets the record straight.

The author provides a fair and comprehensive assessment of the man who led China through a war of resistance against Japan and then a civil war that ended with his defeat at the hands of Mao Zedong in 1949.

Taylor shows in great detail that Chiang and his often-maligned troops fought more effectively against Japan’s heavily armed and well trained war machine than is generally realized. He also depicts in a mostly positive light Chiang’s performance during a quarter of a century in exile at the head of the Nationalist government on Taiwan, where he set the stage for the island’s shift from dictatorship to democracy.

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As a young wire service reporter visiting Taiwan in the early 1960s, I shared the standard view of Chiang as a rigid dictator who harbored delusional dreams of retaking the mainland. Indeed, Taiwan in 1963-64 was a menacing place for journalists, critics, and opposition figures. They had to watch what they said or risk prison.

I sympathized with opposition writers and politicians and was not inclined to look kindly on Chiang Kai-shek.

But relying on new materials, including Chiang’s diaries and interviews with key participants, Taylor reveals that Chiang was even then plotting dramatic economic and political reforms.
Most of the credit for Taiwan’s democratization has gone over the years to Chiang’s son and successor Chiang Ching-kuo. But Taylor makes clear that the elder Chiang was encouraging changes made by his son.

At the same time, Taylor, a former diplomat turned historian, does not ignore Chiang’s failings. On several occasions, as Taylor describes it, Chiang “sanctioned extreme actions that amounted to staggering moral blindness....”

Among these actions were killings that Chiang “ordered or permitted in 1947 in Taiwan” and “extensive executions during the first few years after his arrival on the island.” These were “unnecessary even in terms of Chiang’s own objectives of mass intimidation and control,” writes Taylor. “The fact that Mao, Deng Xiaoping, and other Communist leaders, while in full control of the mainland, were responsible for the deaths of innocent millions rather than thousands, does not change that judgment.”

Taylor describes Chiang as “the ultimate survivor.” After Japan’s imperial armed forces bested his undersupplied army in 1937-38, he “always held a weak hand” in dealing with both allies and enemies. On the battlefield, against both the Japanese and the Communists, Chiang displayed courage, fought hopeless defensive battles against superior forces, and made a number of last-minute escapes from besieged cities.

While holding to a dream of creating a modern state based on Confucian values, he shrewdly adopted the tactics of “compromise and playing for time.” A Confucian who had adopted Christianity, Chiang comes across in the end as a man who could be cold, ruthless, and domineering but also far-sighted, calculating, and statesmanlike.

Chiang secured military aid from Stalin in the early years of the war against Japan. He also nudged Roosevelt closer to a tough stance against Japan and, after Pearl Harbor, traveled to India, where he persuaded Mohandas Gandhi not to disrupt Britain’s war effort.

Taylor documents repeated failures by the United States to live up to its commitments to Chiang. Following Truman administration promises of aid, the first military supplies did not begin to arrive until November 1948, too late to play a role in the decisive battle for Manchuria.

The author takes a fresh look at Chiang’s dealings with Joseph Stillwell, the US Army general who served as Chiang’s chief of staff and top foreign adviser. Western journalists admired Stillwell for his bluntness, but according to Taylor’s account, “Vinegar Joe,” as he came to be known, oversimplified complex problems and underestimated Chiang Kai-shek.

In the early 1940s, Stillwell wrongly accused Chiang of failing to aggressively confront the Japanese while it was actually Mao Zedong who was preserving his forces while engaging in nothing more than a “political offensive” against the Japanese. At Stillwell’s urging, Chiang committed some of his best troops to a campaign against the Japanese in Burma that turned into a disaster.
Taylor shows how Chiang, while on Taiwan, used threats to invade the mainland in order to maintain morale and gain leverage with his American allies. By stirring uncertainty over his intentions, he gained concessions and commitments. In reality, he did not consider recovering the mainland as a viable option, at least not in his lifetime.

Taylor also reveals that Chiang came to loathe Richard Nixon as the American president made his opening to Beijing. But Chiang kept his thoughts mostly to himself.
“Generalissimo” is well-written, and takes on an epic quality as Taylor guides us through many turning points in modern Chinese history. He draws on new materials, but his greatest strength is the fairness of his approach.

Dan Southerland, executive editor of congressionally funded Radio Free Asia, is a former Asia correspondent for the Monitor and former Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post.

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