It all started in China. It was here in the 1930s and 1940s that the United States was first presented with a dilemma that has recurred again and again over the decades since: a strategically important country; a tradition-minded authoritarian ruler, at the head of a corrupt and incompetent government; a violent insurgency led by a totalitarian and anti-western movement. What to do?
This question, so haunting and difficult, is well illuminated by Jonathan Fenby’s fine Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-Shek and the China He Lost.
In China, the US never could quite make up its mind, and Fenby helps us to understand why.
Few leaders in world history pursued power more cunningly and ruthlessly than Chiang Kai-Shek. Beginning as an assassin for a Shanghai criminal gang, he gained the trust and confidence of Sun Yat Sen, the revered but hazy leader of the Kuomintang party. Chiang even married the sister of Sun Yat Sen’s wife, jettisoning two previous wives and converting to Methodist Christianity to gain her. (The American-educated and fluently English-speaking Mme Chiang would of course emerge as one of the most arresting personalities of the 20th century in her own right.)
Chiang transformed the Kuomintang into a centralized Leninist party, backed by the Soviet Union. He assembled an unlikely coalition of allies from the criminal underworld to some of China’s leading business figures, from Confucian traditionalists to enthusiastic modernizers. With Soviet aid, he trained a generation of modern military officers at his base in Canton.
Chiang governed brutally, but never very effectively. He believed neither in democracy nor in markets nor in the rule of law in the western sense. He blended ancient Confucianism together with modern fascism to produce an ugly and ultimately unavailing mix. Chiang’s economic ideas were always primitive, and he tolerated corruption in order to secure political allies to himself. Theft, inflation, drug trafficking, and murder would plague any region in which Chiang held power. His warlord rivals governed even worse, however, and by 1927 Chiang had bought, bullied, and battled them into submission to his paramount rule.
It was all downhill from there: Japanese invasion, civil war, the impoverishment of the nation, defeat, exile to Taiwan.
Fenby tells the Chiang story in an exciting but authoritative way. (He leaves behind none of the nagging doubts I felt for example while reading Jung Chang’s and Jon Holliday’s biography of Mao.)
As a ruler, Chiang really was unbelievably incompetent. Despite his grand title, he was a remarkably poor military commander. Nor was Chiang an inspirational figure: His cold, grandiose manner isolated him from potential supporters; he never touched the emotions of ordinary Chinese. He brought to power a clique and coterie of grim and grotesque characters, not least his wife’s appalling family.
The most amazing story in the book – perhaps well known to more knowledgeable people, but absolutely news to me – was that Mme Chiang seduced a drunken Wendell Willkie during his visit to China in 1942. She hoped to persuade him to divorce his wife, from whom he was estranged anyway, marry her, run for president in 1944 – after which the two of them would rule the world together, he in the West, she in the East, Antony and Cleopatra style.
Chiang promoted generals for political reasons, sabotaged successful generals if he feared they might become a political threat to him, wrecked China’s economy through confiscation and inflation, allowed foreign aid to be diverted on a massive scale, and bitterly resented the US ally to whom he owed his survival. On the other hand, since the alternative was Mao, Chiang ranks as one of the 20th century’s outstanding lesser evils.
Understandably, the Chiang problem flummoxed the Americans who had to deal with him. While a few Americanas (Edgar Snow, John S Service, John K Fairbank) disgraced themselves either as apologists for Mao or as easy dupes, most of the US government and military badly wanted to defeat Mao – but were absolutely baffled by the problem of how to do it. Arm and aid Chiang? And when Chiang allowed his family and friends to steal the arms and aid and then begged for more – what then?
Fenby raises one interesting historical might have been. The US never seriously considered intervening against Mao on the ground: US military forces were fully committed to the defense of Europe. But as late as May 1949, the Chinese Nationalists securely held the territory south of the Yangtze, including the cities of Shanghai and Canton. What if the US had used air and naval power to prevent the Communists from crossing the river? The richest parts of China might have joined South Korea, South Vietnam, and West Germany as one of the divided nations of the Cold War.
The idea was raised by US planners, but rejected by President Truman and General Marshall. Among its undertakers, however, was Chiang Kai-Shek himself – because the idea was linked to his own retirement and success on the Yangtze would have redounded to the credit of the internal political rivals pushing the idea. He himself was already committed to retiring to the island of Taiwan, like the Ming loyalists of the 17th century, and waiting for communism to collapse. In 1949 as throughout his career, Chiang regarded himself as so indispensable that he would sacrifice anything, even his country, rather than surrender his claims to leadership.
Before I visited Taipei, I had often seen pictures of the Chiang Kai-Shek monument in that city. I was utterly unprepared, however, for the sheer scale of the thing. Imagine a structure four or five times the size of the Lincoln memorial, set in a vast park, facing a huge three-bayed ceremonial arch, flanked by two great reception halls, all surrounded by a high white wall. The whole thing invites comparison to Tiananmen Square in Beijing – not really a very happy comparison for an emerging democracy to invite.
Fenby says little about Chiang’s rule on Taiwan. It was an ugly story to begin, yet with in the end a happy result. For all his faults, he did set at least a portion of the Chinese people on the path to democracy. Many Chinese leaders have done less. Perhaps that will excuse him for his failure to do more.
His biography however could not have done better. Fenby’s Generalissimo is altogether fine, well-executed in every way, clear-eyed in its historical and moral judgments, and a pleasure to read.