America’s Retreat from Victory

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

The official story of what happened at the end of World War II doesn’t make any sense, Foseti notes. According to the official story, the war was fought to defend free peoples from tyranny, but if we’d just left Hitler alone to take over Europe, a lot less of the world would have found itself under tyranny, and a lot fewer people would have died.

This led him to Joseph McCarthy’s “lunatic” explanation, laid out in America’s Retreat from Victory:

Let’s start with US strategy in Asia. According to McCarthy, the overwhelming aim of US military policy in Asia should have been to keep the Soviets out of the actual fighting with Japan. Among other things, McCarthy digs up various intelligence reports (given to Marshall) that stated that if the Soviets joined the war in Asia, “China will certainly lose her independence, to become the Poland of Asia; Korea, the Asiatic Rumania; Manchuria, the Soviet Bulgaria.” He also finds a statement from Admiral Leahy (pre-dating Yalta) noting:

MacArthur and Nimitz were now in agreement that the Philippines should be recovered with ground and air power then available in the western Pacific and that Japan could be forced to accept our terms of surrender by the use of sea and air power without an invasion of the Japanese homeland.

In other words, a non-retarded US strategy would have been to keep the Soviets out of the war with Japan.

The early key to Asia was Manchuria, according to McCarthy. The US officially recognized Manchuria as belonging to the Republic of China. Yet at Yalta, Stalin asked for it and FDR obliged, in exchange for Russia agreeing to enter the war against Japan (which Stalin had already indicated he intended to do, which made sense given Stalin’s position, and which was probably detrimental to US interests anyway). McCarthy notes (apparently without humor) that Roosevelt was simultaneously enabling Soviet expansion while haranguing Churchill for the British empire’s control of India, etc.

Marshall next took interest in the Chinese Civil War between the forces of Chiang and Mao which was going on during China’s war with Japan. The US was allied with China and was arming China in its struggle against the Japanese. Here Marshall insisted that aid would only go to China if it suspended its civil war (Mao was delighted, as I’ve noted elsewhere).

Marshall then insisted that Chiang accept Communists into his government (again delighting Mao). He later vetoed the appointment of General Wedemeyer as ambassador to China because Zhou En-Lai (who was in rebellion against the actual government of China!) objected. Leighton Stuart (Zhou’s former teacher) was later appointed. The tide eventually turned and Mao eventually won. As Wikipedia elegantly puts it: “Marshall seems to have disagreed with strong opinions in The Pentagon and State department that Chiang’s success was vital to American interests.” I guess we might as well give the whole country to the Soviets then. Or, as Marshall put it:

As Chief of Staff I armed 39 [Chinese] anti-Communist divisions, now with a stroke of a pen [preventing the Nationalists from buying ammunition] I disarm them.

McCarthy sums up the results of Marshall’s Asia policy:

Suppose… we had not implored Russia to enter the war in the Far East, had not equipped her army [when the Communists eventually took China, they did so with US equipment via Russia], had not given her the right to take Manchuria — where would the sudden collapse of Japan on the 10th of August, 1945, have found the Russians? … Had we followed the advice of Admiral Leahy, instead of Marshall, the war with Japan would no doubt have come to its abrupt end with the Kremlin dickering with us for a bribe which they obtained with such miraculous ease at Yalta. The situation in the Far East — then and today — would have in that case looked something like this:

The surrender of the Japanese Kwantung army in Manchuria would have been made to the Americans and Chinese. The Americans would have held Manchuria — and all Korea for the Koreans . . . “

Incidentally, it’s worth noting that MacArthur almost screwed up the Soviet plans in Asia. Coincidentally, he was fired by Marshall and Truman.

Finally, it’s not like the correct policy in Asia was hard to discern. Wedemeyer had already spelled it out:

The result was the Wedemeyer Report, in which Wedemeyer stressed the need for intensive U.S. training of and assistance to the Nationalist armies.

Fearful the Nationalists may rise to challenge US hegemony in the Far East [but not fearful the Soviets would do so?], President Truman not only rejected the recommendations in the report, but imposed an arms embargo against the Nationalist government, thereby intensifying the bitter political debate over the role of the United States in the Chinese civil war. While Secretary of State George C. Marshall had hoped that Wedemeyer could convince Chiang Kai-shek to institute those military, economic, and political reforms necessary to defeat the Communists, he accepted Truman’s views, and suppressed publication of Wedemeyer’s report, further provoking resentment by pro-Nationalist and/or anti-communist advocates both inside and outside the U.S. government and the armed forces.

After the fall of China to Communist forces, General Wedemeyer would testify before Congress that while the loss of morale was indeed a cause of the defeat of the Nationalist Chinese forces, the Truman administration’s 1947 decision to discontinue further training and modernizing of Nationalist forces, the U.S.-imposed arms embargo [i.e. Marshall's policies], and constant anti-Nationalist sentiment expressed by Western journalists and policymakers were primary causes of that loss of morale. In particular, Wedemeyer stressed that if the U.S. had insisted on experienced American military advisers attached at the lower battalion and regimental levels of Nationalist armies [rejected by Marshall] (as it had done with Greek army forces during the Greek Civil War), that aid could have more efficiently been utilized, and that the immediate tactical assistance would have resulted in Nationalist armies performing far better in combat against the Communist Chinese. Vice-Admiral Oscar C. Badger, General Claire Chennault, and Brigadier General Francis Brink also testified that the arms embargo was a significant factor in the loss of China.

I recently read Barbara Tuchman’s Stilwell and the American Experience in Chinea, 1911-45, which adds to the picture.

“Vinegar Joe” Stilwell earned his nickname by dishing out caustic criticism to soldiers who didn’t live up to his high standards. Because of his reputation as a brilliant tactician, he was initially selected to plan and command the Allied invasion of North Africa — but, because he spoke fluent Chinese, he was sent instead to China, to serve as a liaison to Chiang Kai-Shek.

The Americans wanted to keep China in the war in order to tie up Japanese troops — and seemed perplexed that Chiang Kai-Shek didn’t get around to sending his troops into combat against the Japanese, despite all the aid they were giving him.

Chiang Kai-Shek, of course, had other priorities. He was saving up his forces for the coming civil war against Mao and the Communists — whom FDR and others tended to call “so-called” Communists. Even Stilwell, a Republican anti-Communist, respected the Reds, because they actually fought the Japanese on occasion, and because they treated the common people decently, unlike Chiang’s utterly corrupt government.

In trying to reform the Chinese Army, Stilwell seemed oblivious to the political implications of removing officers who were vital to keeping Chiang Kai-Shek in power. He also seemed surprised that the Chinese generals took orders from Chiang, even when he was put nominally in command.

What Chiang wanted far more than American ground troops and advisers was American air power. He vastly preferred General Claire Lee Chennault and his “Flying Tigers” — who promised to more or less fight the war for him, without risking any of Chiang’s hoarded materiel.

In 1944, with China’s position crumbling, Stilwell convinced Marshall to have Roosevelt send Chiang an ultimatum threatening to end all aid unless Stilwell was placed in charge of all Chinese forces. That didn’t go over well. Stilwell was recalled and replaced by General Albert C. Wedemeyer.

To the American people, who had been fed constant propaganda about how Stilwell had been leading the brave Chinese soldiers in their fight against the Japanese, none of this made much sense, and Chiang found his regime painted in an unfavorable light compared to the brave Communists:

Right before Stilwell’s departure, New York Times drama critic-turned-war correspondent Brooks Atkinson interviewed him in Chungking and wrote, “The decision to relieve General Stilwell represents the political triumph of a moribund, anti-democratic regime that is more concerned with maintaining its political supremacy than in driving the Japanese out of China. The Chinese Communists… have good armies that they are claiming to be fighting guerrilla warfare against the Japanese in North China — actually they are covertly or even overtly building themselves up to fight Generalissimo’s government forces… The Generalissimo naturally regards these armies as the chief threat to the country and his supremacy… has seen no need to make sincere attempt to arrange at least a truce with them for the duration of the war… No diplomatic genius could have overcome the Generalissimo’s basic unwillingness to risk his armies in battle with the Japanese.”

Atkinson, who had visited Mao in Yenan, saw the Communist Chinese forces as a democratic movement (after Atkinson visited Mao, his article on his visit was titled Yenan: A Chinese Wonderland City), and the Nationalists in turn as hopelessly reactionary and corrupt; this view was shared by many of the U.S. press corps in China at the time.

The negative image of the Kuomintang in America played a significant factor in Harry Truman’s decision to end all U.S. aid to Chiang at the height of the Chinese civil war, a war that resulted in the communist revolution in China and Chiang’s retreat to Taiwan.


  1. Dave says:

    Jay Taylor’s book The Generalissimo contradicts Stilwell’s biography to some extent. Here’s what Taylor says about Stillwell:

    (pg 191 hardback) Stilwell had become a lieutenant general and division commander in 1940 and then suddenly vaulted up to corps commander the next year. By Pearl Harbor – six months later – he had been named the best corps leader in the U.S. Army.

    Two days later in a meeting with Marshall, Stilwell said the chances of success in China were good if, as he put it in capital letters in his diary, he were given “COMMAND”.

    Stilwell was a known China expert since he could speak Chinese, but his career smacks of mysterious manipulation like Marshall’s and Eisenhower’s.

    But my main point is about Mao’s fighting against the Japanese. Taylor attributes this to Communist propaganda, more or less:

    (pg 220) Their (the American “Old China Hands”) generally black-and-white views of Chinese politics, which today seem curiously devoid of perspective or nuance, were a product of the times…. [The China Hands] were distraught by the misery, corruption and disparities that they saw all around them, conditions endemic to China for generations but exacerbated by the war and endlessly elucidated by both the freewheeling and self-critical Chinese society that existed in parts of Chungking. The Communist base areas, which were rarely seen by Westerners until mid-1944, were, by contracts, not crowded urban cities hundreds of years old, but communities built up from military bases in rural areas — communities that offered strict control, order, and a homogeneity of expressed views.

    (pg 221) In addition, the handful of Communist officers chosen to deal with the Americans in Chungking, like Zhou Enlai, were not only idealists themselves but also able to dissemble in a charming, engaging way about the CCP’s intentions.

    In other words, the Americans were more-or-less Communists who were taken in by Communist propaganda.

  2. Dave says:

    But to Mao’s fighting, Taylor addresses this directly:

    (pg 172) Zhou left Moscow in March (of 1940)…. Zhou took back to Yan’an a Comintern resolution that gave the CCP Central Committe more scope for making its own decisions. While Stalin still believed that Mao was strongly committed to his and the Comintern’s current priority in China — support for Chiang’s leadership of the united struggle against Japan — Mao interpreted the resolution as providing leeway for a more aggressive program of territorial expansion into KMT areas and behind Japanese lines.

    In the fall of 1940, [Mao] authorized a coordinated attack by 104 regiments against rail lines, major roads, and other infrastructure in Japanese hands in Shanxi and Hebei. The offensive destroyed miles of track, blew up bridges, and destroyed other weakly defended facilities. But by the end of September, the Eighth Route Army had suffered about 22,000 killed and wounded while Japanese losses were estimated about 3,000-4,000. The Japanese threw in large reinforcements and with brutal “search and destroy” operations recovered all the lost territory. The occupiers created a vast network of fortified blockhouses and trenches and instituted their “kill all, burn all, destroy all” strategy which meant killing all Chinese, including children, and all livestock found in rural areas where guerrillas were or had been operating; burning all the buildings; and destroying all the crops, dikes, wells and canals. The Japanese also created a system of protected villages — settlements of cooperating villagers who would not have their crops confiscated, their men dragooned into labor brigades, or all their inhabitants simply killed. Within months, the population in the Communist base areas had dropped from 44 million to 25 million. Mao would never launch another major offensive against the Japanese. [emphasis mine]

    Based on Taylor’s writing, I think that nearly all the American praise of the Communists was the direct result of propaganda, not a fair representation of facts. The Japanese beat the shit out of Mao the only time he tried to seriously attack. He spent the rest of the war stocking up on men and supplies from Stalin to attack the abandoned and weakened KMT forces who spent the entire war fighting the Japanese on several fronts.

  3. Dave says:

    Incidentally it seems the Japanese had an effective COIN doctrine as well…

  4. Dave says:

    As for Chiang’s commitment to fighting, Taylor illuminates:

    Chiang’s jumble of armies was keeping occupied thirty-six Japanese divisions and some forty-four mixed brigades including those in Manchuria, or about 1.3 million men all together. This was almost 67 percent of the Japanese Army at that time and the Allies wanted to see that they remained tied up. After Pearl Harbor, Tokyo transferred nine divisions from China to the various Pacific and Southeast Asian fronts. But a million or so Japanese soldiers and airmen remained in China, including Manchuria. Since the prospect of the Soviets attacking the Japanese in Manchuria or elsewhere was nil, there was no other force than the Chinese Army, which included the Communists, keeping them in the Northeast. Chiang noted ironically in his diary that America and Britain had so far lost every battle in the Pacific, a record that, he thought, should remind them how heroically the poorly armed Chinese soldiers had fought since 1937. China’s international prestige and position, he believed, were at unprecedented levels.

    Like the Allies, Tokyo saw that the Burma Road was a major strategic asset for the Allied cause. Consequently, on December 12, the Japanese 15th Army began moving up the Kra Peninsula toward Rangoon whose port was the indispensable starting point of supplies heading up the railway to Lashio and the Burma Road. On the first day of the new war, Chiang told the British that he was prepared to send 80,000 of his best troops — his remaining German-trained divisions — to Burma and, even more impressively, to put them under British command. He also offered to commit all of his remaining heavy motorized artillery to the campaign. Chiang was determined to do his part in the Allied cause.

    At this time, the Flying Tigers — officially the Chinese Air Force’s American Volunteer Group — consisted of only seventy-five or so serviceable P-40s recently received from the United States. All the pilots were American, but it was a Chinese outfit, paid for in cash by the Chinese government. Its planes were virtually all Chiang had in the way of attack aircraft, but although Chungking was being bombed daily, he assigned all of the Flying Tigers to the defense of Imperial Britain’s colony of Burma. This was another impressive commitment to the cause, which was going badly everywhere else. Even so, within a few months some American officials would be saying that Chiang Kai-shek was determined to do as little as possible in fighting the Japanese. [emphasis mine]

    So, I think it’s fair to say that Chiang has not gotten a fair judgement from history yet. Maybe in another few hundred years historians will come to view the 20th century differently. As Moldbug says, few will find its history credible.

  5. Isegoria says:

    I suspect that every general’s career “smacks of mysterious manipulation” — you don’t become general without friends in high places.

    I wouldn’t say that the Americans were more-or-less Communists. I would say that some influential Americans were Communist-sympathizers. And I would say that the Americans seemed to be taken in Chiang’s propaganda and by Mao’s. And by Churchill’s. Etc.

  6. Isegoria says:

    Speaking of Japanese counterinsurgency doctrine, RAND produced a report on just that topic in 1967.

  7. Dearieme says:

    “According to the official story, the war was fought to defend free peoples from tyranny.” Really? I thought the US fought it because Japan attacked her and Germany declared war on her.

  8. Tschafer says:

    Both Mao and Chiang were more concerned with saving up material to fight each other than they were with fighting the Japanese, because they both correctly believed that, once the Japanese attacked the U.S., they were doomed. Mao put on a better show, and had better PR and there’s also no doubt that liberals in the U.S., Tuchman among them, have been busily trashing Chiang ever since 1946, and it’s remarkable how many people, even some conservatives, still hate Nationalist China. But the historical tide seems to be turning. More and more scholars are starting to admit that Chiang, while no Napoleon, at least did manage to keep China in the war, tying up millions of Japanese troops, and that his “corrupt, repressive” government was better in both respects than Mao’s bloody kleptocracy. So, two cheers for Chiang Kai-Shek – Tailgunner Joe would have agreed…

  9. Isegoria says:

    Mao and his Communists weren’t yet corrupt and repressive, because they weren’t yet in power. They needed to treat the common man well in order to garner enough support to eventually seize power — so they appeared like Minute Men to the Americans, who always have a soft spot for fighting tyranny.

  10. Dave says:


    Thanks for the link that that RAND report! I figured that such research had taken place deep in the bowels of the defense-academic complex. My first skim through, it seems that the lessons for COIN are pretty simple:

    1.) Severely punish/kill anyone associated with the insurgency.
    2.) Reward anyone who actively opposes/shuns/avoids the insurgency.

    Seems simple and effective to me.

  11. Dave says:


    I agree with your assessment of Stilwell’s career. I was perhaps a bit too conspiratorial. In many ways, Vinegar Joe was in the right place at the right time to assume the position of responsibility that he had. Politically he was apparently somewhat conservative, but I think his politics mattered less than his egotism.

    Unlike Eisenhower, who shrewdly politicked the British, often at the expense of American interests, Stilwell constantly insisted that he personally control all of the Chinese armies. He also disrespected Chiang and the two of them never got along well, even though Chiang bent over backwards to try to accomodate Stilwell’s demands. Imagine Eisenhower insisting that he personally command all of the Commonwealth forces — without Monty and British “input”!

    There is no doubt that both Mao and Chiang attempted to court American public opinion. In terms of “credit to sweat equity ratio”, Mao came out way ahead of Chiang, partially because of the American’s “independence streak” and idealogical biases, and partially because he was closely aligned with Stalin via the Comintern. Chiang had no such political alliance.

    Of course, the reason that the China situation was allowed to get out of control was because the White House’s spotlight was always on Europe, because of the “Europe first” policy.

  12. Isegoria says:

    I mean, how hard could counterinsurgency be, right?

    More seriously, yes, that’s the game. The authorities want to separate the insurgents from the people, and the insurgents want to integrate themselves with the people and to goad the authorities into overreacting.

    Like most occupying powers, the Japanese had an overzealous military branch in conflict with its own civil branch, which had more support from the people than one might imagine, because it did provide good governance, unlike the deposed government.

  13. Isegoria says:

    The same basic attitude that works well for a commanding officer — decisiveness, demanding the best, etc. — does not work at all for an adviser. If you’re disgusted by incompetence and corruption below you, you fix the problem. Above you? Not so much.

  14. Dave says:

    If you are disgusted by the corruption above (and your ego permits it), then you resign in disgust.

  15. Isegoria says:

    If you refuse to deal with corruption and incompetence, then you refuse to help China. Resigning in disgust is the easy way out.

    Stilwell believed he could do much, much more with the hardy, uncomplaining Chinese soldiers than their own corrupt, incompetent commanders ever could, which would solve China’s most pressing problem, the Japanese occupation, while helping to solve America’s. What he couldn’t figure out was how to get the Chinese soldiers under his command — formal or informal.

  16. Tschafer says:

    Mao was already conducting mass killings at Yenan, long before he came to power. As for corruption, read Jung Chang’s biography of Mao. The Communists were repressive and corrupt long before they rolled into Peking.

  17. Retired Guy says:

    Oh, this is so nice to read. Young folks chewing over old history. Foseti ought to visit The Institute of World Politics (near DuPont Cr.) and meet some old bright men who were there, so to speak.

    There was soooo much fuzzy thinking in the USA foisted by bright propagandists for the Reds. A shameful bit of history. Glad that a light is being shone into that black hole.

  18. Dave says:

    Retired Guy,

    I live in the D.C. region. Looks like this “IWP” is an institution of “red government” (red as in reactionary — Moldbug’s terms).

    Does the IWP have functions one can attend?

  19. Retired Guy says:


    The IWP is a school, a grad school, staffed with really bright folks — political scientists, historians, former policy wonks, former NSC and OSD staffers, and the like. Please check out their web site and thumb through the faculty bios. They do have public lectures, some of which can be found on CSPAN, etc. Enjoy.

  20. Foseti says:

    I’m reading General Wedemeyer’s memoirs now. I think it’s the best I’ve read from WWII. Note that he strongly defends most of the US policy, including Marshall. Here’s his take on Stilwell:

    Until now [late '42 or early '43] I had regarded Stilwell as a romantic fighting man, and the best-informed U.S. officer on China. It would be a long while before I finally pierced his legend to discover his gullibility concerning the Communists and his prejudiced view of Chiang Kai-Shek and the Nationalist Government of China, whose problems he never seemed to understand….

    Everywhere Stilwell went there was a photographer present to catch him in brave poses: peering between leaves at the enemy, or snuggling close to a gun, always giving the appearance of being a field soldier, which was the role in which he so loved to be presented….

    [Stilwell's] description of Chiang Kai-Shek remains etched in my memory although soon I was to realize how unjust, uninformed, and prejudiced it was. My notes confirm how he castigated the Chinese President as coolie class, arrogant, untrustworthy, and absolutely impossible to get along with.

  21. Isegoria says:

    I think a genuine fighting man who spent years in country could nonetheless have no clue about politics.

    Tuchman’s Stilwell reminded me of Hilaire du Berrier‘s Background to Betrayal. In both China and Vietnam, the Americans seemed baffled that their aid didn’t go directly to its stated purpose.

  22. Tschafer says:

    Once again, please note that Tuchman was a liberal. That doesn’t mean that she’s automatically wrong, of course, but she does need to be taken with a few grains of salt.

  23. Isegoria says:

    By the way, I’ve discussed Wedemeyer’s victory plan before.

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