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Saturday, February 28, 2004

Chiang Kai Shek

'Chiang Kai-shek': Before the East Was Red
Jonathan Fenby's biography of Chiang Kai-shek attempts to assess the character of the enigmatic leader. [New York Times: International]

What kind of man was Chiang Kai-shek? Answering the question correctly was central to some of the main strategic and military decisions of World War II, since in the dark days after Pearl Harbor the forces under Chiang's command -- even if motley and disorganized -- were holding down hundreds of thousands of Japanese troops on the Chinese mainland. If Chiang caved in, those Japanese troops could be shipped out to reinforce their comrades in the Pacific and Southeast Asia.

In the spring of 1943, President Roosevelt cared enough about the answer to summon back from China the two senior officers who knew Chiang the best, Joseph Stilwell and Claire Lee Chennault. Their assignment was to brief the president on the situation in China, and to meet with the combined chiefs and Winston Churchill in planning future strategy in the Far East. Chennault wrote in his memoirs that when asked by Roosevelt for his opinion of Chiang, he replied: ''I think the generalissimo is one of the two or three greatest military and political leaders in the world today. He has never broken a commitment or promise made to me.'' Stilwell was less forthcoming at his meeting with the president. But in a letter to his wife, written after his return to China, he was pungent: ''Back to find Chiang same as ever -- a grasping, bigoted, ungrateful little rattlesnake.'' In a diary entry written 10 days later, Stilwell called Chiang a ''Jovian Dictator, who starves his troops and who is the world's greatest ignoramus.''


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