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