My first exposure to modern Chinese history came as an undergraduate in the 1970s. My professor, Dr. David Deal, argued that Chiang Kai-shek was an incompetent bully largely responsible for losing China.
When it came time to take my final exams, Deal was on sabbatical, his place taken by a Chinese professor whose family had escaped to Taiwan after Mao's takeover in 1949. When asked about Chiang, I repeated what I had been taught. I even called him a "fascist thug." That was not a clever tactic, under the circumstances. I did not do well on that exam.
I mention this incident because it reveals how assessment of Chiang has long been clouded by cold-war politics. In the 1970s, only the courageous or foolhardy questioned Chiang's competence or his right to rule China. Most Americans preferred the standard line that since all commies are evil, those who oppose them are by definition noble and heroic.
A consummate salesman, Chiang cleverly marketed himself as an anti-fascist anticommunist. As long as the US government believed that Chiang was the only hope for China, it was prepared to bankroll his campaigns. During World War II, he took advantage of American desperation by effectively blackmailing the Roosevelt administration, occasionally hinting that the Japanese might offer a better deal. Chiang's reputation for extortion was so great that he earned the nickname "Cash My Check."
Roosevelt recognized Chiang's defects but nevertheless felt obliged to support him. While he told the American people that Chiang was "an unconquerable man of great vision and great courage," he confessed to Gen. Joe Stillwell that he was "fed up" with the generalissimo.
"If you can't get along with Chiang and can't replace him," Roosevelt remarked in a moment of extreme frustration, "get rid of him once and for all. You know what I mean."
The remark bears close resemblance to a comment John Kennedy made to Henry Cabot Lodge about the equally inconvenient South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963. On that occasion, Lodge acted on Kennedy's frustration, and a few days later Diem was dead. In the case of China, however, the Americans could not find a way to rid themselves of a troublesome premier.
They had, therefore, to sit idly by while Chiang drove the Chinese juggernaut toward destruction. His only answer to China's problems was rigid authority. Progress was by nature suspect, because any improvement in the lives of his people undermined his own power.
Mao, at least, had a sense of how to appeal to the people, even if his vision was profoundly misguided. Chiang, in contrast, could offer the miserable Chinese nothing more than a rabid nationalism centered on himself.
Jonathan Fenby has produced a welcome reassessment of one of the most important and controversial leaders of the 20th century. With admirable objectivity he destroys the Chiang myth, simply by letting the man hang himself. Fenby demonstrates that, while Chiang represented order of a sort, especially after the chaos that had plagued China in late 19th century, the only real difference between him and the old warlords was the fact that he was more efficient at consolidating power.
Real leadership, however, was beyond him. A paranoid man, he placed obedience above ability when choosing subordinates, regardless of the real cost to the governed. "What Chiang liked," one critic remarked, "were men who would obey absolutely but who had no talents of their own."
When applied to the selection of his general staff, this proved disastrous - some members could not even read maps. In part because he could not rely on his subordinates, but also because he was, quite simply, a control freak, Chiang collected jobs as others collect stamps. In 1938 he held 82 administrative posts, from chief of the government, to head of the army and navy, to president of the National Glider Association. He was even chief of the Boy Scouts, a duty he handled competently.
Fenby's biography is more than just a vivid portrait of a loathsome leader. It is also a modern tragedy on an enormous scale. He argues, quite convincingly, that there was nothing inevitable about China's descent into communism. Mao's success can be explained in large part by the inept campaign Chiang conducted against him and the lack of vision he offered his people.
Chiang was a nationalist who loved China, but he loved himself most of all. His various campaigns to retain power cost the lives of 18 million Chinese. With his hold on his country crumbling, he escaped to Taiwan in December 1949, vowing that he would shortly return. On his first day of exile, he went fishing on Sun Moon Lake.
According to the story subsequently circulated, he caught a fish five feet long. He took this to be a good omen. In fact, like so much of Chiang's life, it was just another fish story.
• Gerard DeGroot is chairman of the department of modern history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.