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Stilwell and Mountbatten in Burma
Allies at War, 1943-1944
By Jonathan Templin Ritter
University of North Texas PressCopyright © 2017 Jonathan Templin Ritter
All rights reserved.
In the town of Carmel-by-the-Sea on the Monterey Peninsula, two hours down the coast from San Francisco, near the beach where the Pacific surf crashes, is a two-story house in a quiet residential neighborhood near the famous Carmel Mission, nestled amidst pine and cypress trees. In front of the house there is a plaque which reads:
Stilwell House: Home of Joseph Warren Stilwell "Vinegar Joe" General, U.S. Army 1883-1946 A soldier without peer who never deviated in his absolute dedication to the United States of America.
Joseph Warren Stilwell was born on March 19, 1883, in Florida, where his father was running a lumber business. Stilwell came from a patrician Northern family — his father was descended from an English colonist who had come to America in 1638. Although his father obtained both a law degree and a medical degree, he never practiced either profession, preferring to be a country gentleman and then vice-president of a public utility. Stilwell grew up in upstate New York. Although he planned to go to Yale, his father encouraged (or rather, ordered) him to go to West Point, to give Stilwell, who had become increasingly rebellious, the discipline to be found there. He was able to get in through family connections with President William McKinley (1843-1901).
During his time at West Point, Stilwell was a good student in languages, especially French, and he is credited with introducing basketball to the academy. He also participated in cross country and varsity football. He graduated in the Class of 1904, where he ranked thirty-second out of 124 students. Later, Stilwell taught English, French, and Spanish at West Point and attended the Infantry Advanced Course and the Command and General Staff College. In 1910 he married Winifred "Winnie" Smith (1889-1972). Together they would have five children. His son, Joseph W. Stilwell, Jr. (1912-1966), graduated in the West Point Class of 1933, and served with the 15 Infantry Regiment, his father's old regiment, in Tientsin, China, in the late 1930s. He became a brigadier general and served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
In the summer of 1912, Stilwell and his family first visited Carmel, a seaside town just south of Monterey, the old Spanish and Mexican capital of California. Stilwell and his wife decided Carmel would be a nice place to live and to have a home for their retirement. However, due to Stilwell's various military postings, he was not able to build his house there until 1934.
Stilwell first visited China during the 1911 Revolution that overthrew the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty and created the Republic of China. He was stationed in the Philippines and took three months' leave to tour Japan and China. There he met his first British military counterparts in Hong Kong, which left a lasting and unfavorable impression. His biographer Barbara Tuchman wrote that Stilwell "admired the English drill sergeants who 'for commands, appearance and results beat our average officer 500%.'" On the other hand, Stilwell said (in what Tuchman called "the first statement of what was to become a historic prejudice") that the English officer "is a mess. At least here in Hong Kong. Untidy, grouchy, sloppy, fooling around with canes, a bad example for the men." Tuchman noted that all his life Stilwell hated "swagger" sticks ("canes"), which were carried by British officers and by some U.S. Army officers, including officers of the 15 Infantry Regiment in which Stilwell served in China during the 1920s.
Stilwell's dislike of the British officers in Hong Kong and their frequently snobbish and racist attitudes would shape his attitudes towards them in World War II, with unfortunate consequences for Anglo-American cooperation.
During World War I Stilwell served in France as the U.S. Army's Fourth Corps intelligence officer, helped plan the St. Mihiel offensive in 1918, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. In France Stilwell's unfavorable view of British officers and the British Army that had started in Hong Kong in 1911 was reconfirmed. When he was assigned to a British division on the Western Front, he wrote that "These English are beyond me — most of them are so very pleasant and some of them are so damn snotty ... too god-damned indifferent and high and mighty to bother about an American officer." In contrast to his feelings for the British, Stilwell liked the French because he thought they were more polite and helpful to him as an American. Tuchman wrote "his command of French opened the way to cordial relations." Stilwell wrote to his wife that "They treated me like a long-lost brother."
During the interwar period the U.S. and Britain formed, or rather reinforced, their opinions of each other based on certain historic national views and stereotypes. According to British historian David Reynolds, most Americans had an "Old World" image of Britain of "class, Crown and colonies" which largely came from Hollywood, while many British, also influenced by Hollywood, saw America as a land of cowboys, gangsters, bandleaders, and Hollywood movie stars. Although the Americans and the British had fought together in World War I, the military and naval leaders in both countries largely went their separate ways between the two world wars, which further reinforced the attitudes that the U.S. and Britain had about each other until World War II.
There were exceptions, such as the Washington Naval Conference in 1921-1922, which was designed to balance naval tonnage. This resulted in the "Five Power Treaty," by which the U.S., Britain, Japan, France, and Italy agreed to limit their ratio of battleships and aircraft carriers to five each for the U.S. and Britain, three for Japan, and 1.75 each for France and Italy. The agreement actually favored the Japanese, even with their lower ratio, because they could concentrate their fleet in the Pacific, while the U.S. had to maintain a "two-ocean navy" and Britain needed to maintain its naval forces around the world. Thus, Japan gained naval superiority in the Pacific. The Japanese only accepted the lower ratio in exchange for an American agreement not to fortify Guam and the Philippines, which the Japanese promised not to attack, a promise that was finally broken on December 7, 1941.
The conference also replaced the Anglo-Japanese alliance with the "Four-Power Treaty" consisting of the U.S., Britain, Japan, and France. However, many Japanese were angry about being considered "inferior" vis-a-vis the U.S. and Britain due to their lower ratio. Over a decade later, at the London Naval Conference in 1934, Japan announced that it planned to terminate the treaty. At the end of 1936, the provisions of the treaty expired and were not renewed.
Moreover, during this period the U.S. and Britain became naval competitors for a while, which strained, rather than improved, relations. Anglo-American historian Kathleen Burk wrote that "During the inter-war period, relations between Britain and the US were often fraught, particularly during the 1920s. They were fighting for their respective positions. Great Britain, still the only global power although no longer financially pre-eminent, wished to remain the strongest ... The US navy ... wanted to supplant the Royal Navy." Burk also wrote that back in 1916, before the U.S. entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson had said to Colonel Edward House, his friend and close advisor, "Let us build a navy bigger than hers [Britain's] and do what we please."
The Washington Naval Conference was actually motivated in part by Canadian fears that, in the event of war between the United States and Japan, Britain, which had been bound by treaty with Japan since 1902, would be forced into a war with the United States, which might then invade Canada. Far-fetched as that prospect seems now, many Canadians had not forgotten that the United States had invaded Canada twice, first in the Revolutionary War and then in the War of 1812.
There was almost no contact between American and British military chiefs and senior officers, such as Stilwell and Mountbatten, during the interwar years, as there has been since World War II, e.g., in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). British military historian Alistair Horne wrote that "After nearly half a century of NATO, we all tend to take for granted the close proximity of American and British officers' joint headquarters. But in the 1920s and 1930s, for a senior British officer ever to have met his American counterpart was about as unlikely for either one as encountering a Martian in Piccadilly." This lack of contact was a major factor that added to the difficulties of the Americans and the British working together in Europe and in Asia during World War II — the senior officers on either side of the Atlantic did not even know each other. However, the 1939 visit of King George VI (1895-1952) and Queen Elizabeth (1900-2002), who were the first British monarchs to visit the U.S., was a major milestone in Anglo-American relations, and was aimed specifically at establishing closer contact between the two countries. The Atlantic Conference between FDR and Churchill in 1941 was the next major milestone in the development of the Special Relationship.
The interwar period was also a time of transition for the U.S. Army, which changed from continental defense and a small coastal defense force during World War I to the modern U.S. military that emerged in World War II. American military historian Edward F. Coffman wrote about the development of the U.S. Army during that period as follows: "From 1898 to 1941, two momentous developments — the emergence of the United States as a world power and a revolution in warfare — radically changed the Army ... Technology precipitated the revolution in warfare. Tanks and trucks replaced horses and wagons, while the airplane came into its own, resulting in the Armored Force and the Air Force." In fact, despite the almost total lack of contact between American and British officers during this period, the 1927 visit of the U.S. Secretary of War to Britain, where he saw the British Experimental Mechanised Force, led to the formation of the first mechanized unit in the U.S. Cavalry.
Stilwell himself was either stateside or in China during the 1920s and 1930's. After World War I, Stilwell wanted another overseas assignment and was sent to China because the postings in Japan — his first choice — were all filled. Stilwell's second visit to China began his deep attachment to the country and its people. He was able to see it beyond the foreign enclaves, such as the Treaty Ports and the missionary compounds, to the vast, real China. He served three tours of duty in China from 1920-1939, where he was the U.S. Army's first Chinese language officer after 1919, became fluent in Chinese, and was the military attaché at the U.S. Legation in Peking (then Peiping, then Beiping from 1928-1949, and now Beijing) from the summer of 1935 to the spring of 1939. In that role he would have had a good deal of contact with British officers serving as military attaches or colonial officers in Shanghai and other "treaty ports." The "treaty ports" were Chinese cities where the British and later other countries could maintain their own compounds, carry on trade under a fixed tariff, and have extraterritorial jurisdiction, i.e., try their nationals under their own and not Chinese law. (Until 1943 there was even a United States District Court for China.) Stilwell's extensive service in China gave him an unusual amount of exposure to his British counterparts, given Britain's leading role among the powers there. Military attachés were the exception to the general lack of contact American officers had with their British counterparts during the interwar period, and an American officer stationed in China would have had at least some exposure to his British colleagues, in Peking or Shanghai.
In 1935 Stilwell wrote a short paper that expressed his own attitudes and prejudices about the British and their role in the world, simply titled "The British." A little over two typewritten pages, it expresses what he did not like about British "superiority" during the interwar period and how they could make themselves better liked by Americans. After criticizing the British Empire and British arrogance, he concluded as follows: "If Great Britain had sense enough to send around a few people who were modest, had a sense of humor, and could see just a little good in someone else, what a hit she would make in the United States. And what a lot of concrete good it would do her."
Although Stilwell's paper was written in May 1935, just before he returned to China as military attaché that summer, it reflects his earlier exposure to the British, both there and elsewhere. He obviously felt he knew them sufficiently well to offer such a critique.
At the same time, we know that he shared information with his British counterparts in China, because Tuchman wrote that "A note from the British Embassy in February 1936 thanked him for 'a most interesting brochure on the Chinese Communist situation.'" His comments about the British seem to have been directed toward British colonial attitudes and not the British people. Moreover, this paper was written before the Battle of Britain and the Blitz in 1940-1941, which helped to change American perceptions of the British people, as opposed to the British Empire, for the better. In 1940 Britain became the heroic island that stood up to Hitler and the Nazis after the fall of France.
When the Japanese invaded China in July 1937, starting the Second Sino-Japanese War, which later became the Pacific War and the largest Asian war in the twentieth century, Stilwell and other American officers in China witnessed Japanese brutality firsthand and were frustrated with the initial unwillingness of the U.S. to become actively involved there. During Stilwell's last two years in Japanese-occupied Peking from 1938-1939, he encountered the Japanese on a regular basis and wrote about what he saw as their good and bad qualities. (He tallied up six good qualities, including courage, and twenty-six bad ones!)
After World War II began in Europe in 1939, Stilwell believed the U.S. would go to war with Japan in the near future and felt that the FDR Administration was focusing more on the war in Europe than on the war in China. In fact, FDR was more concerned with the Nazis, whom he saw as a bigger threat to the U.S. than the Japanese.
By 1939 Stilwell was stateside commanding a brigade and in July 1940 was promoted to major general. He organized and trained the 7 Infantry Division at Fort Ord, near Monterey, California. During this period he "rapidly gained a reputation as one of the best and most aggressive commanders in corps and army exercises." Chiang's biographer Jay Taylor, who is generally critical of Stilwell, wrote that "By Pearl Harbor ... he [Stilwell] had been named the best corps leader in the U.S. Army." Stilwell succeeded brilliantly during the summer peacetime maneuvers in California in 1941, which caused General Marshall, by then the U.S. Army's Chief of Staff, to promote him to command the IIIrd Corps. (In the early 1930s when Stilwell was at Fort Benning, Georgia, and Marshall was his commanding officer, Marshall had called him "qualified for any command in peace or war." )
Stilwell went to the top of the army list due to his drive and hard work (he had gone to both the Infantry School at Fort Benning and the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth in the 1920s), but perhaps more than any other reason, because Marshall supported him and refused to relieve or reprimand him when he ruffled feathers, which he frequently did. His was one of the names in Marshal's "Black Book," officers who would be promoted when war came. Still wiry and physically fit in his late fifties, despite having lost an eye in World War I, Stilwell roughed it with his men and became known as a "soldier's general."
On Sunday, December 7, 1941, Stilwell was at his home in Carmel, hosting a party for junior officers from Fort Ord, when news came of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He described that day vividly in his diary, as follows:
Japs attack Hawaii. [Plan] Rainbow 5 in effect ... Jap fleet 20 miles south, 10 miles out [of Monterey, which was not true]. Sent [Major Frank] Dorn [Stilwell's personal aide, who later became Brigadier General Dorn, and was closer to Stilwell than anyone else in the Army in CBI] to [Ft.] Ord to call off show and alert garrison. Phoned [Colonel Thomas] Hearn [chief of staff of III corps, who later became Major General Hearn, chief of staff of the CBI Theater] ... White [at Fort Ord] to send reconnaissance troop down High No. 1 ... Guam being attacked.
A few days later he wrote in his diary about the total unpreparedness of the West Coast for defense: "We have two battalions along the coast ... two battalions in reserve = 175 miles of coast ... six tanks coming from Fort Ord. (The others won't run). ... Had the Japs only known, they could have landed anywhere on the coast, and after our handful of ammunition had gone, they could have shot us like pigs in a pen."
Excerpted from Stilwell and Mountbatten in Burma by Jonathan Templin Ritter. Copyright © 2017 Jonathan Templin Ritter. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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