A Brief History of Modern East Asia

East Asia had an eventful and turbulent history the past century.  With two World Wars, the fallout of imperialism, the rise of communism, and deadly civil wars, its historical trajectory has not been stable.  Looking at nations like Japan, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Korea we see the impact of these conflicts and factors, and contrasting path to independence and modernity. 

 Japan was the first to modernize and became the dominant power in the region until its defeat in World War 2, then was rebuilt as an economic powerhouse in the second half of the 20th Century.  China suffered decades of civil war, western exploitation and Japanese imperialism, and the evils of Maoism, but then reformed economically and is now America’s greatest rival.  Taiwan had a mixed existence under Japanese occupation for 50 years followed by martial law, Cold War angst, but emerged as a freer and richer society than China.  Korea and Vietnam were subjected to imperialism, civil war and superpower proxy contests but had different fates.  While East Asia’s major wars seem distant there is much unfinished business, and current issues, that make the region potentially volatile.


 Japanese modern history was remarkable, impressive and controversial.  When Commodore Perry sailed his American warships into Tokyo Bay in 1853 Japan was a feudal, technologically backward state compared to the Western powers.  However, due to hard work and brilliant planning, Japan’s Meiji leaders managed to mostly catch up to the West within decades.  Modern industry, armed might, infrastructure, and education quickly sprung up around Japan and produced unexpected developments.

Japan’s decisive defeat of China in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 surprised the Europeans and Chinese.  Japan’s defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 shocked the world, and confirmed Japan as a great power.  Japan’s annexations of Taiwan, Korea, and various Chinese and Pacific territories from 1895 to 1931, provided further impetus for Japanese expansion.  Meanwhile American and European worries about the Great Depression and German militarism meant Japan’s increasing aggression in the Far East went unchecked.

However, Japan’s continuous heavy-handed behavior in China led to the Second Sino-Japanese War in July 1937.  Japan had not expected war but assumed it would defeat China quickly.  This optimism faded as China refused to surrender despite losing countless soldiers, Japan occupying the coastal and industrial heartland of China, and limited prospect of foreign powers coming to China’s aid.  As Germany overran much of Europe, Japan doing the same in China, and committing warcrimes like the “Rape of Nanking,” America woke up to the threat of Germany and Japan.

Finally, Japan went a nation too far by annexing South French Indochina, leading to America’s oil embargo, Pearl Harbor, and war.  Unfortunately for Japan its imaginary superior martial qualities and fanaticism did not defeat American industry, technology, and nuclear weapons.  By mid-1945 Japan’s navy was sunk, its air force decimated, its people starving and, cities reduced to ash.  After Japan’s surrender America occupied Japan, and a new saga for the island nation began.  The fate of Japan’s empire including much of China, as well as Taiwan, Vietnam and Korea, would be determined by anti-colonialism, communism and superpower rivalry.

Ironically, Japan benefited more from the postwar era than its former imperial possessions.  American occupation brought money, stability, democracy, and encouragement to concentrate on economic potential in lieu of samurai militarism.  This with traditional Japanese work ethic, and economic booms from the Korean and Vietnam wars, propelled Japan to near economic superpowerdom.

Compared to the Meiji period until 1945, that saw the worst of Japanese militarism, the postwar era benefited not only Japan, but East Asia and the world via Japanese culture, trade, and stability.  However, despite this Japan’s place in modern Asia is not without controversy.  Japan’s halfhearted apologies and efforts to compensate for World War 2 have not brought closure to the legacy of Japanese imperialism or brought harmonious relations with many neighbors.  The rise of right wing nationalists and school curriculum that downplay, or ignore, the horrific nature of Japanese imperialism and war crimes, or portray Japan as the victim in World War 2, has not helped Japan’s diplomatic position in East Asia.  This can be contrasted with Germany’s laudable efforts since 1945, which has soothed relations and brought it into the European community, as Japan struggles to integrate with East Asian affairs at times.


Korea was traditionally a tributary state of China.  But in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) Japan wrestled Chinese influence away, and then had to deal with Russian influence permeating there.  When Russia did not compromise with Japan over Korea and Manchuria, the two nations went to war, leading to Japan’s decisive victory in 1905.

With this, Japan replaced Russia as the most influential power of North East Asia for four decades.  In 1910 Japan annexed Korea which remained a Japanese colony until 1945.  Japanese rule was harsh, and unconcerned with Korean culture, freedoms, or livelihood.  Having secured Korea from Russian and Chinese influence, Japan exploited its position in Korea to eventually invade Manchuria and expand war into China in 1931 and 1937 respectively.

 Korea’s fate after World War 2 was decided at the Yalta Conference (1945), when America bribed the Soviet Union into attacking Japan three months after the defeat of Germany by promising territory and perks in East Asia.  Russia’s brief role included invading Manchuria and Korea to defeat the strong Japanese forces stationed there.  This severely weakened Japan, and with the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, convinced Japan to surrender in August 1945. 

 The division of Korea in 1945 was not finalized by statesmen or generals, but junior American officials in the field.  On their own they suggested to Russia to divide the occupation of Korea at the 38th parallel, and the Russians agreed.  This is odd as Russia could have moved south to occupy most of the Korean peninsula before American forces arrived.  The next 5 years saw attempts to unify Korea, but the northern communist part and authoritarian southern one, could not agree so Korea remained divided.

By 1950 Russia had strongly rearmed North Korea, while America neglected South Korea’s military.  With Stalin and Mao, who only came to power in China in 1949, gambling America would do nothing, North Korea was encouraged to reunify the Korean peninsula by force.  Yet surprisingly, even to many American officials and allies, President Truman made a stand for South Korea, and the Korean War would last three years.

 Despite being America’s forgotten war of the 20th Century, the Korean conflict was more bloody and dirty than the Vietnam War, and closer to superpower conflict and nuclear war once China intervened.  Despite the many dramatic advances and retreats by both sides in the first year, the war ended in stalemate along the 38th Parallel.  Both sides claimed victory; America for saving South Korea, China for saving North Korea, but at the time it was not a win for anyone (especially the Korean people who lost over 3 million deaths).

But in the long term the war benefitted South Korea and America more than North Korea and China.  Within decades South Korea moved past authoritarianism to democracy and economic prosperity, while North Korea’ communist dystopia continued its journey to Stalinism, poverty, and decline.  America gained credibility coming to South Korea’s defense, while Maoist China was seen as rogue state for a generation.

Observing Korea today few would conclude North Korea is the more successful state.  However, the unfinished business and legacy of the Korean War and the potential, if unlikely, prospect of nuclear war in East Asia are constant reminders that more than 100 years after the Russo-Japanese War, Korea is still a major flashpoint.  While North Korea with nukes is no less dangerous than Stalinist Russia or Maoist China was, but its armed forces and missiles could inflict widespread death and destruction on South Korea. 

However, the supposedly irrational leaders of North Korea are arguably not believers of communism, or have no death wish to fight America.  Rather they pragmatically combine fiery rhetoric and nuclear weapons (their only trump card), to gain economic and political concessions from its neighbors and the West.  Domestically they use sanctions and unfriendly acts from foreign powers to justify the cruel dictatorship over its starving, oppressed people.  It is a similar routine used by Arab despots and monarchs, to put off genuine democratization and reform, but unlike them North Korea has nukes, so the world usually listens despite it being a paper tiger.

Since the war ended in 1953 North Korea has launched some missiles, and made bombastic speeches, but besides shelling a few South Korean islands, has never come close to launching another war.  Whatever the cost would be for America and South Korea, a war would hurt North Korea more and its regime would gain little potential aid, or concessions, and perhaps cease to exist altogether.  It makes sense for Pyongyang to occasional saber rattle to remind the world of its existence, then pull back from the brink before hostilities which would destroy it.  However, one poor miscalculation on either side, or the actions of a warmonger in North Korea, could destroy this balance and ignite a devastating war.


 Perhaps Vietnam’s modern history is the most controversial in East Asia.  Vietnam was conquered by France and absorbed into French Indochina in the 19th Century.  Before this, Vietnam had traditionally been a tribute state of China, and had often combatted Chinese attempts to dominate it.  France’s colonial rule was typically exploitive, cruel, and benefited few Vietnamese.  The exception were some locals cultivated to help French rule, and many were sent overseas to France for education.  This included Ho Chi Minh and they were exposed to ideas of freedom, equality, liberalism, and of course communism.  Rather than cementing French rule this created a small cadre of Vietnamese communists, committed to liberating Vietnam.

These forces had little success until France fell in 1940, and Japan’s annexation of French Indochina afterwards.  Calling themselves the Viet Minh these communist forces used the decline of French power and Japanese oppression, to expand their base and mobilize people to their cause.  Like the CCP in China they did not do much fighting against Japan in World War 2, but they did gain strength, and had a solid position when the war ended in 1945.  After Japan surrendered Chinese Nationalist forces occupied the North part of Vietnam, while British forces occupied the South.  As the Viet Minh tried declaring Vietnamese independence, and establish its own government, the French sent forces to reclaim their colony.

After futile negotiations between France and the Viet Minh failed war broke out in late 1946.  What could have remained a limited conflict became a proxy war in the Cold War for two reasons.  Firstly, the rise of the PRC in China in 1949 helped the Vietminh via aid, weapons and safe zones.  This allowed them to survive strong French attacks, and later create conventional forces to fight France directly.  Secondly, despite America’s hope to end colonialism after 1945, it quickly backed French efforts in Vietnam due to increasing fears of communism.  Often this is viewed cynically but between 1945-1950 there were communist insurgencies in Greece, Malaya, the Philippines, and a new communist regime in China, so American fears regarding communist expansion were not unfounded.

Therefore, Chinese aid helped the Vietminh survive and build up forces, while American aid allowed France to hold onto its doomed Vietnamese colony for another decade.  France would kill more Vietnamese but never won over the populace or defeated the Vietminh (politically or militarily).  After the Vietminh won the unexpected victory at Dien Bien Phu France’s political will to continue the war collapsed and it sued for peace.

Rather than securing all of Vietnam the Viet Minh had to accept the division of the country (like Korea) between a communist dominated north, and a American leaning, but authoritarian south.  Given the contentious battles of history regarding the ensuing Vietnam War it is often forgotten that while North Vietnam was more rural, agrarian, and pro-communist, the south was more urban, cosmopolitan and leaned towards the West.  Communist sympathizers suggest the south was as pro-communist as the north, but numbers and events do not support this.

During the French Indochina War, the majority of the Viet Minh’s bases, recruits and sympathy were in the north, while few of these, and no major battles, were in the south.  After the 1954 agreement ending the war, 1,000,000 people fled the north versus a tenth of this number from the South who went the other way.  South Vietnam’s army was also often more effective and motivated than usually portrayed.  In 1968 it helped America defeat the “Tet Offensive,” in 1972 it stopped the Easter Offensive, and even in 1975 it fought well despite America abandoning it. 

After 1975 2,000,000 South Vietnamese refugees fled the country, and many experts believe near the end of the war less than 30% of South Vietnam’s population welcomed communism.  This illustrates Vietnam was more than a proxy war pitting America versus Russia and China; it was also a bitter civil war.


 After Vietnam’s division in 1954 promised elections and attempts to unify the nation (like Korea), never occurred and both sides drew closer to war.  With France gone, America continued supporting South Vietnam, with its corrupt, authoritarian regime.  America hoped the government would improve, while North Vietnam grew tired of waiting and supported communist insurgents in the south (the Viet Cong).  Unfortunately, the South Vietnamese generally did not support communism but their government in Saigon was admittedly more corrupt, less motivated, and not as determined for a deadly struggle compared to the north. 

During the next decade North Vietnam supported the Vietcong with arms, supplies, recruits and even its regular army (violating Cambodian and Laotian neutrality) and by the mid-1960s the South was losing against communism.  Much has been written about American objectives, methods, and failures, but the conflict was not an aggressive American war against Vietnam or even North Vietnam.  Like in Korea and Taiwan, America was invited in by a sovereign government, with a mostly anti-communist population, to save it from communist aggression.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of America’s war in Vietnam, its objectives were strategically defensive to prop up an ally, and never to rollback communism in North Vietnam.

If American goals were arguably correct, its execution was often less so.  While North Vietnam’s (and Viet Cong) excesses were generally worse than America’s, there is no doubt American reliance of firepower, strategic bombing, head counts and conventional military sweeps, resulted in disproportionate collateral damage, civilian losses and many war crimes.  It is a myth America lost the military struggle in the war; America never lost a battle of any consequence.  However, by failing to cut off North Vietnamese aid to the Vietcong, failures to protect the South Vietnamese population, and cutting off support to South Vietnam after America left in 1973, meant all the blood and treasure America committed was in vain.  North Vietnam conquered the south in 1975 with a strong conventional campaign, it was not liberated by discontented South Vietnamese.

The political, and therefore ultimate, goal of America’s war in Vietnam was to keep South Vietnam independent and non-communist.  Any way you look at it, America failed to accomplish this, so it lost the war.

 However, America’s loss has been overstated.  America suffered a political and diplomatic defeat in Vietnam, but besides the credibility gap in America the affects were limited.  Arguably the war hurt worldwide communism more.  During the conflict Russia and China competed more and more, and got into a brief border war which accelerated the Sino-Soviet split.  Nixon used this to get China into the Western camp (more important than the loss of South Vietnam, in a cold realpolitik sense).  More ironic were the wars between Cambodia and Vietnam, and Vietnam and China in the late 1970s (between fellow communist states).  Thus, the Vietnam War not only improved relations between America and China, but divided world communism.

The long-term effects are harder to determine, but it is worth noting Vietnam is not growing closer to China but to America, especially in recent years.  This suggests whatever the latter’s flaws it is often seen as more benign, or less intrusive, than Asian powers like Russia and China.  It should be remembered Vietnam’s conflict with America occurred over one generation, but Vietnam’s resistance against Chinese hegemony has been ongoing for centuries.

As for Vietnam itself and unlike Stalinism, Maoism, the killing fields of Cambodia, and other Red unpleasantries, the Vietnamese form of communism has been less bloody and oppressive (in the long run at least).  There are similarities to China like more openness to economic reforms and capitalism, and while democracy is not near, Vietnamese people enjoy relative happiness and cohesion comparable to Tito’s Communist Yugoslavia.  However, the Vietnamese do not benefit from the relative freedom, prosperity, and standards of living as those in South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.  The question remains how South Vietnam would have turned out if America had not abandoned it.


 In less than a century China transformed from a divided, backwards, and foreign dominated nation, into the second strongest country in the world.  Its economic growth and influence continue to grow, as fears about American’s decline mount given the deep polarization of American society, and growing mistrust of its political institutions.  If the 20th Century was America’s, the 21st Century may still belong to China.

After Japan’s victory in the First Sino-Japanese War, China’s Qing Dynasty attempted reforms to modernize its backwards nation.  However, these were halfhearted, too late, and given poor communications and divisions inside China, did not prevent the Xinhai Revolution in 1911.  In the aftermath China ostensibly became a republic under the leadership of Sun Yat-sen.  In reality, China became divided into many enclaves controlled by warlords, and Sun Yat-sen and his Kuomintang party (the Chinese Nationalists or KMT) soon lost power. 

The Warlord Era followed with Sun Yat-sen attempting to regain influence via alliances, force, and machinations over the next 15 years to little avail.  However, they were helped by the new communist regime in Moscow and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), who believed they could ally with the KMT to seize power in China, and then expend the Nationalists afterwards.  Sun Yat-sen died in 1925 and his loyal, stern, and incorruptible subordinate Chiang Kai-shek won the power struggle to succeed him.  He soon convinced the KMT and CCP to move against the warlords and unify China against foreign and domestic enemies via the Northern Expedition.

Between 1926-1938 they took Changsha, Wuhan, Nanking, Shanghai, Peking, and other major cities, defeated or co-opted warlord factions, and unified China in theory.  However, despite becoming the strongest political force in China the KMT had many problems.  Many warlords refused to co-operate with them, Japan fought them in Northern China, the country was bankrupt and backwards, and the united front with the CCP ended.  Chiang Kai-shek started the break with a bloody purge in Shanghai when it became clear the CCP, with Moscow’s backing, were planning to betray the Nationalists.

For the next decade, the Nanking Decade, the KMT fought warlords and the CCP, appeased and sometimes fought the Japanese, sought foreign aid and recognition, attempted to initiate widespread reforms, modernization, and industrialization in a divided nation with little stability.  The surprise is not that they often failed, but that they survived at all!  There were successes, such as almost crushing the CCP by 1936, German military aid, and trappings of modernization in urban areas.  But given their many enemies and issues, circumstances were not ideal for the KMT to modernize China, build a strong state, or improve the living standards of most Chinese.

Chiang’s Kai-shek’s worst foes were the CCP and Japan.  However, while Japan’s army was the stronger threat Chiang was convinced the CCP was his mortal enemy.  He once said “the Japanese are a disease of the skin, the Communists are a disease of the heart.”  This viewpoint appeared laughable in 1936 but proved prophetic in 1949. 

 The turning point between the KMT and CCP was the Second Sino-Japanese War, the beginning of World War 2 in Asia, which started from mistakes, miscalculations, and overreactions.  The conflict was long, brutal, and hurt the KMT as much as it saved the CCP.  China’s coastal, industrial, and urban heartland was occupied by Japan, millions of Chinese were killed, maimed, or became refugees, while Japan committed unspeakable war crimes it often denies to this day.

Until recently Chiang Kai-shek has received harsh historical treatment for his conduct during the war, but much of this is unfair.  It is true the KMT made many poor decisions, their forces were of mixed quality, and that corruption, nepotism, and incompetence permeated their war effort.  But considering China was a divided, backwards, and poor nation, without the benefit of significant foreign aid, and fighting a major military power, this is hardly surprising.

What is not true are accusations the KMT refused to fight, while the CCP fought the lion-share of Japanese forces.  Or that America gave sufficient lend-lease to China, and Chiang Kai-shek was not a team player in the allied war effort.  In reality the KMT fought the main battles from Shanghai to Operation Ichi-Go, suffered over 90% of all military casualties, and conducted campaigns helping the Allies in Burma, despite the latter failing to honor commitments to China.  Many accounts of the war mock Chiang Kai-Shek as a parasite for lend-lease, but China got less of it than most allied powers (even the Free French), and most of it was not to help the Chinese but support American forces stationed in China. 

While it was America’s advance across the Pacific, and its submarines, bombers, and nukes that defeated Japan, the Chinese deserve credit for keeping most Japanese divisions in China, and holding out for 8 terrible years.  In World War 2 China fought two years longer than Britain, and four more years than Russia and America. 


With Japan’s surrender in 1945 Chiang’s Kai-shek’s regime had survived, China was recognized as a great power, but the KMT was severely weakened by years of warfare.  Meanwhile the CCP, while still lagging behind the Nationalists regarding soldiers, population, and territory, ended the war in a much stronger position than in 1937.  In the postwar race between the KMT and CCP to retake China’s cities the Nationalists generally won thanks to help from American ships and airlifts.  The exception was Manchuria which Russia had occupied in the summer of 1945, and collaborated with the CCP to take over once its forces withdrew.  The fight over Manchuria between the CCP and KMT would determine the outcome of the Chinese Civil War.

With Japan’s surrender Chiang Kai-shek invited Mao to Chungking for talks to make peace and create a coalition government.  However, due to irreconcilable differences and deep-rooted hostility, this failed, and civil war broke out.  KMT forces had significant numerical and material advantages, and at first it routed the CCP and was on the brink of winning a major victory in Manchuria.  Unfortunately, General George Marshall had been sent by Truman to arrange a cease fire and pressured Chiang to halt the offensive in mid-1946.  Whether the Nationalists could have beaten the CCP by military means is questionable, but with hindsight this was the last chance to do so.

Afterwards the KMT committed themselves to occupy as much of Manchuria as possible, but given the sheer distances, logistical issues, and CCP guerrilla tactics, this was a flawed strategy.  KMT forces were slowly worn down until late 1948 when the CCP was strong enough to begin routing the Nationalists, and eventually overran mainland China.  Committing to an all-out struggle over Manchuria was arguably Chiang’s biggest mistake, would cost him mainland China, and surprising as he always knew how to play a poor hand throughout his career.  On the other hand, given postwar issues including rampant inflation, the end of American aid in 1946, and Russian support for the CCP, the Nationalists might have been doomed anyway.

In October 1949, Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in Beijing and committed to invading Taiwan (where the KMT fled) to finish the civil war decisively.  Unfortunately for Mao in 1950 Truman ordered American naval forces to defend Taiwan after the Korean War began,  which saved the KMT and Taiwan remains independent from CCP rule.

With the victory of communism in China in 1949 Mao fulfilled the Chinese dream of unifying the country, and ending foreign imperialism and the humiliation of China.  The fact Chiang Kai-shek accomplished most of this prior to his defeat in the civil war was conveniently forgotten.  Either way, with indisputable power, backing from Russia, and a Chinese population eager to follow him, Mao sought to modernize China, create a communist state, and reach utopia.

 To his credit Mao improved infrastructure, healthcare and education, and initially enacted widespread land reform to give land to China’s massive peasant population.  Had Mao been a more moderate communist like Tito his legacy would probably be more positive.  However, being vindictive, zealous, and paranoid he turned what was hoped to be paradise into hell on earth.

In a series of anti-rightist campaigns Mao killed, or ruined, countless people.  The CCP’s occupation of Tibet and Xinjiang were also bloody and repressive, and the Chinese state is currently committing a cultural genocide against its Uyghur population.  Worse of all Mao’s Great Leap Forward and establishments of communes not only failed to increase agriculture and industry, but resulted in the deaths of 10s of millions via famine and other causes.  Estimates are controversial but up to 70 million people died from the Great Leap Forward.  Even if the number was half, or a third, as much it is more than either the Nationalists or Japanese inflicted on China. 

 After this, Mao lost some power for a few years but in an effort to regain it he initiated the Cultural Revolution, which destroyed much of the progress rebuilt since the end of the Great Leap Forward.  Using his Red Guards Mao persecuted teachers, parents, intellectuals, among others, and brought progress and modernization in China to a halt once more. While the death toll was not nearly as high as during the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution was not a recipe to make China a great power.

Most cynical of all, Mao made a de facto alliance with America in the 1970s against the Soviet Union (its communist brother).  When Mao died in 1975, he was respected as a great politician and strategist, but given his butcher bill and policies that stagnated Chinese progress, economic growth, and industrialization for a generation, he cannot be considered a great man of history.  Certainly, Taiwan did much better under Chiang Kai-shek than mainland China under Mao.  Had Mao’s backwards and chaotic policies continued after his death, instead of the necessary reforms by Deng Xiaoping, it is clear China would have continued to decline instead of rising to near superpower status.

Fortunately, after Mao’s death his wife and other acolytes were arrested, then Deng Xiaoping sensibly opened up China’s markets and initiated economic and limited political reforms.  A generation of these changes has not resulted in a liberal democratic China but has made it the world’s second biggest economy and improved the lot of many Chinese.

 In modern times China’s economy continues to grow and the CCP still has a monopoly on power, despite the Chinese being more willing to show dissent.  On one hand America, with a slowing economy, and political, social, and cultural malaise, could decline unless moral rejuvenation occurs.  On the other hand, pollution, corruption, political upheaval, separatist sentiment, and demographic issues are far worse in China than America.  America still has advantages in immigration, innovation, and freedom, and it is far from certain China can eclipse America as the world’s strongest nation.  Most of China’s neighbors prefer American protection to Chinese hegemony and given the considerable contradictions of CCP rule it is hard to see a politically communist, but economically capitalist regime, stealing the mantle of world leadership.

It is hard to predict the future, but this author thinks China’s police state will implode before America’s very imperfect democracy. 


 Taiwan is an interesting case study.  Unlike Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and China its history has been relatively bloodless (with notable exceptions) during the past century.  Becoming a de facto Japanese possession after the First Sino-Japanese War, Taiwan received some modernization and industrialization under Japanese rule (much like Manchuria after 1931).  Many Taiwanese after 1945 contrasted this with the initial heavy-handed conduct of the KMT, especially given the February 28th Incident that killed over 20,000 people.  Unsurprisingly, they were unhappy with the massive influx of Chinese refugees from the mainland after the KMT lost the Chinese Civil War.

This, along with the KMT’s imposition of martial law, which lasted for decades, and the White Terror warrants some pause regarding the praise of Chiang Kai-shek versus Mao.  However, it is beyond dispute that modernization, industrialization, standard of living, and general freedoms were much better in Taiwan under Chiang than Maoist China. The White Terror, though unforgivable, was statistically mild compared to what Mao did to the mainland Chinese.

Today it might be overly charitable to suggest Chiang Kai-shek envisaged the liberal, prosperous democracy that is now Taiwan.  However, his actions created the conditions to let this happen, especially under the later stewardship of his son, and unlike Maoist China there were few comparable terrible bloodbaths, famines, or pointless excesses in Taiwan.

However, there is unfinished business over Taiwan as Beijing never accepted Taiwan’s de facto independence, and the significant military and strategic benefits Beijing would get via absorbing the island nation.  The fact Taiwanese liberal democracy provides an alternate model to Chinese Communism, and Taiwan’s alliance with America limits Chinese power projection into the Pacific, suggests China is unlikely to change its policy of “reunification” with the island.

 There seems no reason given the freedom and prosperity of the Taiwanese, and relative decline of the KMT in Taiwan, to believe there will ever be reunification with the mainland.  It is debatable how serious China is regarding a potential invasion of Taiwan, given the numerous obstacles it faces.  However, mistakes, miscalculations, or decisions of an aggressive leader in Beijing could upset this, and arguably result in a cross strait war involving the United States. 


What were the main results of imperialism, communism, Cold War rivalry, attempts at modernization, and independence for these East Asian nations?

European imperialism created colonial states in East Asia, but also inadvertently pushed Japan towards its own imperialism.  This, along with the rise of Soviet Russia, helped create communist movements that gained strong influence in many Asian nations after Japan’s conquests of 1937-1942.  World War 2 weakened western empires such as the British, French, and Dutch, and combined with America’s anti-colonial agenda after World War 2, resulted in the collapse of imperialism in East Asia between 1945-54.

In this power vacuum emerged a contest between liberal America and communist Russia to influence East Asia’s development.  Russia supported communist groups including Mao’s CCP in China, the communist regime in North Korea, and the Vietminh against France (and later America).  America allied with Japan, backed France and later the local regime in South Vietnam, gave mixed aid to Chiang Kai-Shek in China, saved him in Taiwan, and defended South Korea in the Korean War.

 In the long-term South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan became prosperous, democratic, and relatively pro-American.  Meanwhile North Vietnam defeated France and America, North Korea became an Orwellian nightmare protected by nuclear weapons, and China became rich, the second strongest nation in the world, but ultimately kept communist repression.  A case could be made the American backed nations did better regarding freedom, economic progress, and most indicators of good governance like healthcare, happiness, and accountability.  Communism has failed compared to democracy, even capitalism, everywhere else in the world but can it dominate in East Asia?  The life expectancy, standards of living, pollution, corruption, and repressive nature of communist states compared to their legitimacy democratic counterparts, does not suggest good odds of a communist (even China’s model) triumph.

Against this there was the collapse of American allies like the Nationalists in China and South Vietnam.  The charge that the communists were more efficient, less corrupt, and more dedicated in China and Vietnam than their enemies is ultimately correct.  Foreign aid is often a game changer in such conflicts, and American support helped save Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.  Notably, American decisions to cut off aid to South Vietnam after 1973 and giving Chiang Kai-Shek little of it in the last years of the Chinese Civil War, obviously made a difference on the battlefield.  In these cases, the communist powers did not hold back aid for their allies. 

The usual criticisms regarding corruption, poor motivation, and incompetence have not only been directed against South Vietnam, and the KMT in China, but also the former authoritarian regimes in South Korea and Taiwan.  However, long term American aid, and the chance to rebuild and reform, allowed these nations to become democratic and economical models.  It is futile to debate what could have been, but South Vietnam and Nationalist China never got the chance to go down this road because America cut off their aid and abandoned them.

There are no shortages of problems plaguing East Asia:  Japan’s refusal to come clean about World War 2, China’s rivalry with America and longstanding issues with Taiwan, North Korean nukes and issues with South Korea, and Vietnam’s uneasy relationship with China, remain stumbling points towards peace and collaboration in the region.  Meanwhile America’s polarization and domestic issues make it increasingly possible (if not likely) it will turn  isolationist again, severely undermining the liberal rules based order.  On one hand modern East Asia is more peaceful, and politically and economically stable, since before the Opium Wars.  Yet it could take only one crisis along with miscalculations (such as the summer of 1914 in Europe), or a firebrand and crazy leader (like Hitler in 1939), to upset the balance of power or plunge the region into war.  None of this is likely, nor would it benefit East Asia.  But it happened in 1914, as well as 1939, and it could happen again.


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Summers, Harry.  American Strategy in Vietnam:  A Critical Analysis.  Mineola:  Dover Publications, 2007.

Taylor, Jay.  The Generalissimo:  Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China.  Cambridge:  The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011.

Wiest, Andrew.  Rolling Thunder in a Gentle Land.  Oxford:  Osprey, 2006.

Windrow, Martin.  The French Indochina War.  Oxford:  Osprey, 1998.

A Brief Biography of Chiang Kai-Shek:  The Misunderstood Nationalist Leader of China







“Seek truth from facts.”  -Chinese Proverb

Imagine losing the most populous country on earth.  That would not look good on a resume.  This was the fate of Chiang Kai-Shek (nicknamed the Generalissimo), the Nationalist Leader of China from 1927-1949 who lost the Chinese Civil War to Mao’s communists.  History doesn’t tend to look kindly on losers and even today Chiang is often regarded with less favour than Chairman Mao who may have killed more people than Hitler and Stalin.

Myths and Historical Context:

However, many of the negative perceptions of Chiang have been shown to be myths thanks to more than a decade of scholarship via books like The Generalissimo by Jay Taylor, Forgotten Ally by Rana Mitter, and China at War by Hans Van De Ven.  Rather than being corrupt Chiang ate and drank simply, lived a Spartan lifestyle and constantly upbraided less scrupulous subordinates.  Often dismissed as incompetent Chiang made great strides towards modernizing China during the Nanking Decade, scored diplomatic triumphs to put China back amongst the great powers, began the road to Chinese unity and kept the country together during 8 years of hell fighting the Japanese (1937-1945).  Accused of preferring to fight the Chinese Communists (the CCP) rather than Japan throughout the conflict it was actually the other way around as Mao let Chiang’s forces do the lion-share of the fighting, and dying, while the CCP laid low and built up strength for the postwar showdown with the Nationalists (the KMT).

Chastised by the Americans for supposedly doing little with the lend-lease they provided to China Chiang in reality received a tiny amount of it compared to Britain and Russia while American promises and commitments to China were watered downed or broken from Pearl Harbor to Yalta (at Yalta America agreed to let Russia have heavy influence in Manchuria behind China’s back).  A generation of American and Westerners including Joseph Stilwell, Margaret Tuchman, liberal correspondents, fellow travelers and “useful idiots,” have attempted to discredit Chiang’s reputation for decades with much success.  By contrast inconvenient truths such as America giving Japan far more weapons and resources than to China from 1937-1941, or the imperious and haughty attitude of American officials, including President Roosevelt, towards China at the time are less acknowledged.

Perhaps best known as “the man who lost China” much of the tone of Chiang’s detractors suggests he had countless advantages which he inevitably bungled to lose China and then was forced to flee to Taiwan to live out the rest of his days in ignominy.  A more objective analysis suggests Chiang Kai-Shek had too many enemies to fight and too many problems to tackle.  Chinese warlords constantly challenged his authority and progress, Japan attacked his regime on and off for nearly a decade then attempted to conquer China outright, and Mao’s small but disciplined communists provided the only real, viable alternative vision for the Chinese Nation.

Other countries were hardly more accommodating.  To say Stalin’s policy towards China was cynical would be an understatement.  The Soviet Union backed Chiang’s nationalists in the early 1920s (planning to betray them), then switched support to the CCP during the Nanking decade, later provided weapons to Chiang during the first part of the Second Sino-Japanese War to keep Japan from eyeing Siberia, cut off this crucial support in early 1941 after signing a non-aggression pact with Japan, and hedged its bets after World War Two by signing a peace treaty with Chiang while also providing support for the CCP.  As seen above, American hypocrisy towards Chiang was rife and when they finally started providing a good flow of weapons and material to his regime AFTER World War 2 they soon discontinued it in the subsequent last phase of the Chinese Civil War, abandoning their erstwhile ally to his fate as it did so later in Vietnam.

Besides this, Chiang ruled China only nominally upon coming to power in 1927.  Despite theoretical unity, the warlords and communists controlled much of China, the infrastructure, industry, and economy were backwards and sometimes nonexistent compared to the West and Japan.  Chinese education, technology, or even a sense of nationalism was limited outside of bigger cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Wuhan and Guangzhou.  The countryside, then as now, was relatively poor and neglected (which gave Mao his decisive opening by cultivating Chinese peasants, 90% of the population at the time, as the vanguard of the revolution).  China’s military forces were divided between warlords, the CCP, and Chiang’s nationalists and were generally poorly trained, equipped, motivated, and led.  The old Chinese proverb “don’t waste good iron for nails or good men for soldiers” was hardly destined to be a wise philosophy against Japan’s samurai culture/hyper militarism that would result in the Rape of Nanking, millions of deaths and nearly 100,000,000 war refugees during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Speaking of war and death there was far more of that during Chiang’s time on the mainland than the 8 year conflict against Japan.  Chiang’s Northern Expedition to unite China has been described as the largest military campaign in the interwar period.  There was of course the first (1927-1936) and second (1946-1949) parts of the Chinese Civil War.  There were countless conflicts amongst warlords, as well as the warlords attacking Chiang’s regime including the Central Plains War which probably saw more than 250,000 casualties.  There was also a brief Sino-Soviet War in 1929 over control of railways in Manchuria.

Japan was not exactly restrained before the Marco Polo Incident, which started all-out war in 1937 either.  In the preceding decade there were numerous “incidents” between China and Japan.  S.C.M. Paine noted the Japanese penchant to label skirmishes, battles, full blown wars, and even war crimes as “incidents.”  This is hardly surprising from a country that to this day continuously perverts its military history rather than face a harsh historical reckoning.  Japan’s rule of thumb could easily be “when it doubt deny and if you cannot deny minimize.”  What other country would call the Second Sino-Japanese War the “China Incident” or the Rape of Nanking the “Nanking Incident?”  Thus, there was the Jinan Incident in 1928, the Mukden Incident in 1931 (which saw Japan seize Manchuria), the Shanghai Incident in 1932, Japan’s Great Wall Campaign of 1933 and Japanese support of proxies fighting against KMT rule including an inner Mongolian leader with the unique name of Demchugdongrub.  Whatever can be said about Chinese history during this period you would not call it uneventful!

Against these multiple enemies and domestic issues, it is not surprising Chiang failed to tackle many of them but that he got anything done at all.  Unsurprisingly in such dangerous circumstances Chiang constantly had to guarantee the weak foundations of his regime.  Political survival is the first priority of any national leader and whatever Chiang’s flaws he became a master of this by striking quickly and decisively against threats, playing enemies (even subordinates) off each other, and relying upon an intelligence chief so vile he was nicknamed “China’s Himmler.”  Even his worst American critic, Joseph Stilwell, admitted that Chiang was “the most astute politician of the twentieth century.  He must be or he wouldn’t be alive.”


As for leadership qualities, Chiang’s toolbox was mixed.  He was generally calm during a crisis, great at analyzing geopolitical and diplomatic developments, was a model of discipline and frugality, and as Jay Taylor wrote knew “how best to play a weak hand.”  Given the disadvantages listed above he must have had many weak hands indeed.  On the other hand his leadership suffered from a propensity to micromanage, the willingness to take on too many roles (perhaps over 80 during wartime), often promoted officials based on loyalty over merit, his inability, or unwillingness, to clamp down on widespread corruption, and not adequately focusing on Chinese social and economic issues that would eventually undermine his legitimacy to rule China according to the Mandate of Heaven.

Chiang’s rise to power was no less colourful than his reign.  Apparently, he was a cantankerous, difficult child who relished war games and enjoyed ordering his classmates around.  The son of a salt merchant with some financial means he received the traditional Confucius education, studied for a while at a Chinese military academy and lived in Japan for a few years, learning Japanese and serving in Japan’s Army for a stint.  Disgusted by the decadent Qing dynasty during his youth he became a revolutionary and was involved in many of Sun Yat-sen’s (often depicted as the spiritual father of China on both sides of the Taiwan Strait) abortive and successful revolutionary coups.  Heeding the historical truth that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” he would accumulate or expend allies when needed including revolutionaries, Shanghai gangsters, merchants and financiers, Russian, German and American advisors, temporary alliances with the CCP and the Soviet Union, Chinese warlords and landlords, etc.  If anyone ever needed an extensive rolodex it would have been Chiang Kai-Shek.

Sun Yat-sen maybe seen as China’s spiritual leader and Mao Zedong as the founder of modern China, but Chiang Kai-Shek was the individual to get the ball running.  Sun Yat-sen was charismatic and a visionary but he was a poor statesman, let alone politician.  He spent much of his time in China playing chess, planning railroads, and making ill-advised alliances with unscrupulous warlords who consistently outmaneuvered and outwitted him.  Mao Zedong was less honourable (to say the least) than Sun Yat-sen and ultimately outfought Chiang to win mainland China, but he was a relatively minor character in Chinese history until after World War 2 by which time Chiang had already done the lion-share of the work to unify, modernize and put China back on the world stage.  It was Chiang Kai-Shek who launched the Northern Expedition that would unify China (nominally at least) in 1926 and who presided over the Nanking Decade which saw unprecedented modernizing efforts and considerable economic, industrial, and infrastructure growth in the country.  He renegotiated customs duties and previously unfavourable agreements with the western powers, ultimately quashed the unequal treaties imposed by the West, and gave China diplomatic triumphs such as becoming one of the great four allies in World War 2 and gaining China a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.  He consistently outfought and eroded the influence of the self-interested Chinese warlords and steered China through the bloody, tragic, but eventually successful war against Japan.

However, despite all of this he miscalculated his chances against Mao’s communists in the postwar period, lost the last part of the Chinese Civil War and fled to Taiwan in 1949.  The worst part being that over a decade earlier Chiang was on the verge of annihilating the CCP while it licked its wounds from the Long March as it hunkered down in Yan’an in Shaanxi province (which could only be described as part of the boonies of China).  Chiang only needed to launch one last major effort against the CCP to crush it or push it across the border into the Soviet Union.  Instead, in what became known as the Xi’an Incident, he was kidnapped by some of his generals, including the playboy, opium smoking Zhang Xueliang, who wanted Chiang to fight the Japanese rather than fellow Chinese.  This was a popular sentiment in China, at least among the urban population, but it was naive given the relative strength Chiang had over the CCP but militarily weak position he had vis a vis Japan.  As S.C.M. Paine would sardonically remark in The Wars for Asia “China’s idealistic and privileged students got the war they demanded, fought by China’s legions of underprivileged peasant youth.”

In reality, Chiang was pursuing his longstanding policy of “internal pacification before external resistance” by trying to curb or eliminate the Chinese warlords and CCP to achieve real unity, build up strength, and then confront Japan later.  From a strategic and military point of view Chiang Kai-Shek was 100% correct regarding this, but Chinese domestic opinion and Japan’s occasional aggression against China made such a priority politically difficult.  During the Nanking decade he slowly built up the KMT’s military with foreign (usually German) aid and expertise for what he assumed would be a showdown with Japan after he crushed the CCP.  In reality, the Xi’an Incident and the outrage by Chinese students forced his hand to fight Japan in mid-1937 despite his German advisors stressing he’d need at least 2 more years to improve his army to have a chance of success.

The idea that Chiang Kai-Shek should, let alone could, have decisively confronted Japan’s military with any likelihood of success during his time on the mainland is quickly discredited by a serious study of military history for the time.  China had more territory and manpower than Japan, but that was its only advantages.  Japan was a unified country, had a strong economy and industrial base that could support strong, advanced armed forces, and a relatively educated populace eager to support the war effort.  China had none of this at the time.  Japan’s air force and navy completely outclassed the minuscule Chinese equivalents while Japan’s ground forces were supplied with far more, and usually better tanks, artillery, machine guns, and small arms.  Japanese divisions had considerably more troops, support services, firepower and its officers and soldiers were aggressive, motivated and usually better trained than the Chinese.  Despite Chiang’s efforts at unification and building armed forces during the Nanking decade a big percentage of the Chinese order of battle in 1937 were from warlords and the CCP who were seldom reliable or loyal to him.  Japan was also not above using chemical weapons against the Chinese which was continuously sanctioned by Emperor Hirohito himself.

Even Chiang’s best forces were not a 1 to 1 match for the Japanese and after years of lost battles it was calculated they would need a numerical superiority of 6-1 against Japanese forces to guarantee success in a stand-up fight.  As the war against China unfolded, Japan’s leaders estimated a Japanese regiment could take on even one the best Chinese divisions while a Japanese battalion could handle a more standard Chinese division.  Depending upon the Chinese forces they faced, it is thought Japanese divisions had 3-12 times the firepower vs. Chinese ones.  The historical record itself shows how often the Chinese were successful when fighting Japan.  During the Jinan Incident in 1928 the Japanese inflicted approximately 6000 Chinese casualties versus suffering 200 of their own.  In the initial fighting in Mukden in September 1931, which led to the annexation of Manchuria, Japan killed 500 Chinese while losing 2 soldiers.  Chinese forces likewise took disproportionate casualties at Shanghai in 1932 and during the Great Wall Campaign in 1933 and lost these contests as well.  

Even four years of relative peace between China and Japan (1933-1937), and Chiang’s considerable efforts to improve his military did not even the odds for the Second Sino-Japanese War.  In most battles numerically superior Chinese forces were routed with disproportionate casualty ratios from perhaps 4-1 at Shanghai in 1937 (one of the more hard-fought battles) to up to 20-1 or more during much of Japan’s Ichigo offensive in 1944.  China managed a few battlefield triumphs such as Taierzhuang in 1938, the first Three Battles of Changsha, and the Alamo like defense of Hengyang in 1944, but the general rule was Japanese operational victories and Chinese retreats.

Thus, the idea Chiang Kai-Shek should have concentrated on Japan rather than the CCP and had a good chance of beating the Japanese Army during the Nanking Decade was appealing, but ultimately naive, misguided and disastrous according to what actually happened.  In The Art of War Sun Tzu suggests “he will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”  Chiang knew it wasn’t time to fight Japan, but Zhang Xueliang and China’s idealistic students did not.

However, Zhang and the students got their way, Chiang was forced to ally with the CCP to confront Japan prematurely, China and Japan went to war the next year and the result was 8 years of destruction, rape, famine, floods, the overrunning of most of China’s main cities, railways, coastal areas, perhaps 14 million Chinese deaths, 100 million refugees, the evisceration of Chiang’s modernizing efforts during the Nanking Decade, the decisive weakening of Chiang’s regime, and the resurgence of a much stronger CCP.  Which of course helped result in the aforementioned CCP victory against Chiang in 1949 which left him with the crying trophy of Taiwan (at least it wasn’t Disappointment Island in the South Pacific).  In the end Chiang Kai-Shek was correct in believing that Japan, whatever its strength and ruthlessness could never overrun China but the CCP with its appealing (although false) ideology and discipline could and eventually did.  To paraphrase Chiang, Japan had been a disease of the skin, but the Communists were the disease that killed the heart.





After Chiang’s humiliating retreat to Taiwan many accounts of his life end but ironically it was his time on the island that would cement his legacy and later to a certain extent rehabilitate his reputation.  To be fair there were missteps such as the February 28th Incident of 1947 that witnessed the ruthless quashing of an anti-government uprising that saw at least 20,000 Taiwanese deaths.  Likewise, Chiang never instituted democracy, martial law existed throughout his reign, and while the white terror on the island may have been considerably lower (in numbers and in proportion to population) than Mao’s excesses on the mainland, but it was still an unforgivable blemish for his record.

However, without the countless external and internal enemies he had on the mainland, and with the superior infrastructure and conditions which existed on Taiwan, Chiang had more peace, flexibility, and opportunities for state building than during his tenure in mainland China.  As such he finally eliminated the widespread corruption in the KMT establishment, enacted widespread land reform, supported considerable industrial and economic growth which made Taiwan into one of the richest countries in the region, and did other civil and domestic initiatives which significantly improved the island nation.  While he never supported democracy, his son who succeeded him, began the process which would lead to Taiwan becoming one of the most free, open, and liberal democracies in Asia.  With the advent of democracy and more representation of the native Taiwanese population who had less love for the KMT than the Chinese who fled the mainland in 1949, Chiang’s reputation has suffered in Taiwan recently even as it has improved drastically in the west and even in mainland China!

Yet looking at Taiwan and China during the mid-1970s when Chiang and Mao died the Taiwanese model for China, and by extension Chiang’s legacy, comes off looking good by comparison to Mao’s.  Mao may have won the civil war, fought America to a standstill in Korea, made impressive strides in infrastructure, health care and other governmental initiatives, and gave China nukes.  However, regarding economics, industry, freedom, culture, and relative oppression, Mao’s China experiment was a failure versus Chiang’s Taiwan equivalent.  The countless Chinese murdered during land reform and the anti-righteous campaign, the tens of millions who starved to death during the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution that saw society tear itself apart, the traditional Chinese culture purged on the mainland, and the stagnation of industry and the Chinese economy which meant China’s stupendous economic takeoff was delayed for an entire generation are perhaps the 30% of things Mao did wrong (Deng Xiaoping once said Mao was “70 percent right and 30 percent wrong”).  By contrast Chiang’s relatively peaceful, prosperous, and increasingly positive rule in Taiwan appears superior indeed.

The fact Taiwan was in a good position to continue its successes and move towards democracy after Chiang died while Deng Xiaoping and his officials had to quash countless of Mao’s flawed policies before they could put China on the right path to stability and economic development (ironically by copying Taiwan’s economic model) suggests that in terms of ideology, governance and overall results, and since Mao’s communist vision with Chinese characteristics has been judged a failure by history, means Chiang’s Confucius and modern vision for Taiwan provides the superior China model.  China’s economy may still surpass that of America’s, but with its cynical blend of political communism and rapacious capitalism, along with demographic, cultural and social ills, China will probably become grey before it becomes rich and thus decline like Soviet Russia, and Japan before it (both of whom were assumed to eclipse America to superpowerdom eventually).  As Robert D. Kaplan once remarked:

History is a battle of ideas. Confucianism has triumphed over communism. Democracy and enlightened authoritarianism has triumphed over totalitarianism. And Chiang’s humanity, however imperfect, will triumph in Chinese minds over Mao’s epic cruelty.

Personality and Relationships:

That said, Chiang Kai-Shek was not always noble, let alone a particularly pleasant man.  As Simon Whistler, the host of Biographics, noted “while it’s tempting to hold him up as a saint compared to Chairman Mao being less of a colossal dick than Mao Zedong is kind of a low bar to clear.”  What was Chiang Kai-Shek’s character like?  Or what about his relationships and how he saw other peoples and countries?  Unsurprisingly these are as varied and conflicting as his successes and failures.

In his youth, he drank heavily, visited brothels, and was a womanizer.  As he aged, he settled down and enjoyed no drink, vices, and indulged in few luxuries despite his power.  Although dedicating himself to a disciplined version of Confucianism, he also converted to Christianity which he apparently took very seriously.  Indeed, he read the bible often, was fond of sermonizing his troops and officials, and even compared himself to Jesus Christ in his diary multiple times.  Despite this, he could be ruthless when he felt it necessary as seen by his decision to breach the Yellow River dykes in June 1938 to stem the Japanese advance which drowned at least 400,000 Chinese civilians.  Likewise, he ordered Changsha to be burned rather than fall to the Japanese the same year which was not only tragic as it killed 30,000 people but, ultimately pointless as the Japanese stopped short of the city.  While generally not as vindictive as the average dictator he was not above cruelty as seen by the unnecessary murder of one of the warlords (along with most of his family) who had kidnapped him during the Xi’an Incident, or the massacre of communists and labor activists alike in Shanghai in 1927.

As noted above, he was usually calm during a crisis but at other times, according to Brian Crozier, he could succumb to rage, yelling uncontrollably, pounding a table, or throwing a teacup at a bearer of bad news.  He once had a projectionist beaten simply because the hapless fellow showed him a film that offended him.  Perhaps more justly, on another occasion, he physically assaulted an officer he met who was leading conscripts along who were bound to each other by rope.  He was also prone to sobbing such as when he was severely chastised in 1926 for putting Canton under Martial Law, as well as when General Joseph Stilwell humiliated him, with the connivance of President Roosevelt and General Marshall, while trying to coerce Chiang to put all Chinese forces under the command of Stilwell in 1944!  That he was usually quiet, courteous, rigid, and controlled in most circumstances does not explain how quickly his emotions could change.  His supporters could call him “complicated” while detractors could suggest he was “emotionally unstable.”

One thing that should be stressed was despite his authoritarianism and flaws he was no Fascist.  Whatever Chiang was he did not advocate racial hierarchy, glorifying war, or a cult of personality.  That he had a tiny following of Blue Shirt Fascists and admired Germany’s disciplined society and military was one thing.  But there is no evidence he espoused the kind of expansionist, violent, and revisionist agenda Nazi Germany advocated.  According to his biographer, Jay Taylor, Chiang never praised Hitler or noted the Führer’s achievements in his diary (unlike many historical characters who later denied admiring Hitler).

That said, Chiang was not above stereotypes or prejudices.  Despite his time in Japan, serving in its army and admiring its orderly society, he had plenty of unkind words for the Japanese including calling them “dwarf pirates” and listing ways to kill them in his diary at one point.  For Chiang, the British were generally politically astute but cynical and the Americans the exact opposite.  Given Britain’s imperial history, Chiang’s diary has plenty of slurs against it including “how can we emancipate mankind if we cannot annihilate the English?”  After initially being snubbed by the British regarding his offer to provide troops to defend Burma after Pearl Harbor Chiang angrily replied “resisting the Japanese is not like suppressing colonial rebellions” and “for this kind of job, you British are incompetent, and you should learn from the Chinese how to fight against the Japanese.”

Chiang had interesting personal relationships as well.

He had 3-4 wives depending upon the source.  His first marriage was arranged when he was 14, he generally hated her, and it was rumoured Chiang beat her.  Yet he remained married for many years, even bearing a child with her out of loyalty to Chiang’s mother who threatened to kill herself if he divorced her.  Chiang got rid of her eventually and married a much younger girl, he was nearly 35 and she was 15, which appears reprehensible although such age gaps in marriage were not uncommon at the time.  What was definitely reprehensible was infecting her with syphilis (Chiang likely having contracted it from one of the many prostitutes he associated with in his earlier days) on their honeymoon!  Despite this, she was loyal and loving only to be dumped later in favour of his final wife Soong Mei-ling (often referred to as Madame Chiang Kai-Shek).

Madame Chiang Kai-Shek was in many ways the polar opposite of Chiang.  If he dressed simply and lived Spartanly, she was always flashy and enjoyed luxury.  Chiang appeared cold, aloof, even unworldly while she was gregarious, friendly and cultured.  Having been educated in America and speaking excellent english she provided him with good insight into the western world as well as being a charming ambassador and competent translator.  She also belonged to one of the most powerful, influential families in China and while they were in love there was no doubt a cynical calculation in his decision to dump his previous wife and marry Soong Mei-ling.  Much like Princess Diana, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek became a world celebrity and engaged in multiple philanthropic and charitable causes such as opening orphanages and visiting hospitals during the Second Sino-Japanese War.  Also, like Princess Diana she could be a prima donna and often succumbed to depression.  Unlike Princess Diana she didn’t have countless affairs and was loyal to her husband.  When Chiang was kidnapped at Xi’an in 1936 she went to join him in captivity and she stood by him throughout the whole war against Japan, the Chinese Civil War, and even after losing China.  No doubt not every husband would be so lucky!

Chiang had two sons:  Chiang Ching-kuo, from his first marriage, as well as an adopted son named Chiang Wei-kuo.  Perhaps illustrating Nationalist China’s constant switching of allies the former was sent to the Soviet Union to study while the latter went to Nazi Germany and temporarily served in the Wehrmacht.  Stuck in the Soviet Union when Chiang Kai-Shek betrayed the CCP (who were planning to betray him first) Chiang Ching-Kuo disowned his father and they were not reunited until Stalin brokered the Second United Front between the KMT and CCP in lieu of the Xi’an Incident a decade later.  Although Chiang initially favoured his adoptive, more attractive, son it was Chiang Ching-Kuo who would consolidate power in Taiwan after Chiang Kai-Shek died and would lead the island nation until his death in 1988.  Although a dictator like his father he did institute more freedoms and liberalization of society, as well as giving more opportunities to the native Taiwan population who had been neglected in favour of the mainland Chinese who had fled to the island at the end of the Chinese Civil War.  These actions put Taiwan on track to becoming the strong liberal democracy it remains today.

Perhaps Chiang’s most challenging relationship was not within his family, regime, or country but with an outsider:  General Joseph Stilwell, picked as the main American liaison to China after Pearl Harbor.  Whereas Mao Zedong is seen as Chiang’s arch nemesis Stilwell was unequivocally his most obnoxious and annoying antagonist.  Having the ear of General Marshall in Washington, controlling American lend-lease bound for China, and given the fact American policy regarding China during the war was simply to keep it in the fight to bog down the majority of the Japanese army with the least amount of financial and material investment possible, meant Stilwell had considerable leverage over Chiang, his titular superior.  This along with Stilwell notoriously difficult character (hence his nickname “Vinegar Joe”) made it inevitable his relationship with Chiang would be a tumultuous one.

Like Chiang’s complicated position in China which required considerable political and diplomatic acumen to deal with the countless factions and contexts involved Stilwell was given an extremely sensitive position in the overall allied war effort in World War 2.  The China/Burma/India theatre in which Stilwell was dropped into required considerable patience, understanding and diplomacy given the differing interests and visions China, America and Britain had in mind not only regarding the war effort but the future of Asia.  This isn’t even counting the Japanese who they were all supposed to be fighting!

Unfortunately, Joseph Stilwell was singularly incompetent to manage such a vital role as liaison between the Americans, British and Chinese for the war against Japan.  Hans Van De Ven, in China at War, provides a damning quote regarding Stilwell in this regard:

It did not help that General Stilwell was a difficult man.  With the exception of General Marshall, he held everybody in contempt, not just Chiang Kai-Shek (‘the Peanut’) or the Nationalist commander-in-chief He Yingqin (‘graced by no distinction in combat command’), but also, on the British side, General Archibald Wavell (‘a tired, depressed man pretty well beaten down’); General Alexander (‘astonished to find ME – mere me, a goddam American – in command of Chinese troops.  Extrawdinery!  Looked me over as if I had just crawled from under a rock’); and Mountbatten (one of the ‘Kandy Kids’, that is, someone enjoying life at the splendorous headquarters of South East Asia Command at Kandy on Sir Lanka).  His fellow Americans fared no better.  Stilwell could not stand General Chennault, of course, but he had as little regard for his successor, General Wedemeyer: ‘Good God – to be ousted in favour of Wedemeyer – that would be a disgrace.

He also sometimes referred to the wheelchair-bound President Franklin Roosevelt as “Rubber Legs.”

Stilwell had some laudable qualities such as having remarkable physical endurance for his age, not hesitating to speak truth to power, and most likely believed in his mission.  But his difficult personality meant he was all but impossible to work with and unable to take valid criticism, while his inability to understand the complexities of the political and social conditions in China dictated his relationship with Chiang would be untenable.  Thus, Stilwell’s command of Chinese troops in Burma in 1942 ended in disaster, that his refusal to provide Chiang and Chennault’s forces with material support (remember Stilwell controlled US lend-lease in China) would hinder China’s war effort in 1944, and that Stilwell’s arrogant emasculation of Chiang who was about to give him control of ALL Chinese forces in the latter part of that year arguably began the distrust and bad will that plague Sino-American relations to this day.

While it is tempting to at least suggest Stilwell was a gung-ho, old fashioned soldier willing to attack the Japanese head on history confirms him going AWOL during the Burma campaign in 1942, abandoning the Chinese forces Chiang had readily provided him.  Despite rejecting Chiang’s suggestion about adopting a defensive posture, and his advice regarding the proficiency of Japanese forces, Stilwell pushed through an attack, it went badly, the allies were routed, and Stilwell ran away and abandoned his troops.  Had he been leading an American unit he would have faced a court-martial.  Had he been a Chinese commander he would have faced a firing squad.  Instead, he turned abandoning his soldiers into the celebrated “March out of Burma” and wooed the press with his simple, tough talking language that magically obscured the reality of his incompetence.  Apparently, there is an equivalent to Donald Trump in every generation.

In the end Stilwell was fired and recalled but he found many allies and open ears to attack Chiang’s regime and up until the last decade his version of events in China has been the preferred one in textbooks, schools, and the media.  On the other hand, Chiang had some champions including the China Lobby in America and Time Magazine which had enough sympathy to put him on the cover 10 times.

Unique among great men of history Chiang had plenty of introspection and self-awareness. Despite being extremely Machiavellian, sometimes ruthless, and constantly composed in public his diary portrays a more self-critical side.  Perhaps this was a product of his combined Confucius, Christian worldview that stressed self-improvement and admitting one’s sins or maybe it was simply the case he was human enough to realize his many flaws.  Either way you wouldn’t see other historical leaders such as Winston Churchill, who once said “I am prepared to meet my maker.  Whether my maker is prepared for the ordeal of meeting me is another matter,” denigrate themselves as harshly as Chiang Kai-Shek.  It was hardly likely Hitler would have included “maybe I should have listened more to Guderian and Manstein” in the harangue that was his last will and testament.  By contrast as Andrew J. Nathan once wrote:

Chiang exceeded his critics in beating up on himself. In his diary, which he kept from 1918 until he was incapacitated by a heart attack in 1972, he berated himself as “ruthless and tyrannical; irritable; conceited; stubborn; wicked; … extravagant; jealous; stingy; lascivious; arrogant; full of sorrow and indignation.” The key to his character was patient revenge—the ability to “endure great humiliation” and prevail. Of course, striking that posture before the world was a sure way to look like a loser.

What if?:





Could Chiang Kai-Shek have consolidated his rule on the mainland and avoid being banished to Taiwan?  Like most questions regarding alternate history, it is more entertaining debating this than being able to provide a satisfactory answer.  It is easy, with hindsight, to point out mistakes and bad policies on Chiang’s part but not always easy to suggest what he should have done otherwise.  Given the many enemies, strained relations with other countries, and countless domestic issues Chiang faced it was not particularly easy to find ideal solutions much of the time.  For instance, attacking the CCP could lead him open to warlord and Japanese threats, or vice versa.  Trying to solve domestic issues such as land reform or confronting colonial interests could win over many Chinese but also alienate landlords, the western powers, and Japan.  Focusing on reforming his regime could have made it better at solving issues in the long-term, but risked considerable internal conflict even as the regime struggled to survive day by day against multiple enemies.

For most of his reign on the mainland Chiang was like a man juggling too many balls (the Japanese, Warlords, CCP, Americans and the Russians) in a violent windstorm (the many domestic ills facing China) while drunk (his own personal flaws).  In this regard Chiang could be compared to a functioning alcoholic who does better than expected in difficult circumstances, but whom we all know will fall flat on his face eventually. 

That said, what could Chiang Kai-Shek potentially have done differently?

Chiang failed to win over China’s peasants, partly due to relying on landlords as part of his powerbase, but mostly due to the CCP’s superior aptitude at winning over and mobilizing the rural population.  Perhaps better policies and more efforts could have borne fruit in this area, but it was always going to be playing catch up with the communists.  Likewise, the corruption and misdeeds of his regime which became worse after the Northern Expedition, and especially after World War 2, did Chiang no favours and his personal honesty and occasional chewing out of subordinates did little to alleviate this.  Chiang was always too focused on crushing the CCP and other enemies and assumed he could put off a severe overhaul of his regime until they were dealt with.  In the end, it compromised his regime from within, along with its chances against the CCP, and while he recognized this after fleeing to Taiwan it was too late to save the mainland.

He probably could have picked better officials and subordinates at many points and refrained from micromanaging those who were competent as well.  A better understanding of how media worked in a democracy like America could have given Chiang a chance against Stilwell and correspondents who won the battle of the narrative against him countless times.  Although China during his reign was remarkably open with much of the media critical of his regime it never had real power to topple Chiang or significantly change his policies.  As such, Chiang Kai-Shek’s attitude towards public opinion mimicked Frederick the Great who once said, “the people say what they like and then I do what I like.”

Regarding key decisions there are at least two that may have proven decisive had he chose differently.  In the aftermath of the Xi’an Incident, he could have ignored the agreement to ally with the CCP and instead launched a final offensive in early 1937 to crush them or kick them across the border into the Soviet Union.  Perhaps this would have displeased Stalin but given the latter’s overriding priority of having China distract potential Japanese aggression, and the Soviet leader’s constant cynical policies towards China, it is likely Stalin would have supported China against Japan in the subsequent war even had Chiang moved against the CCP in early 1937.  Either way at this junction Chiang decided to forego his best chance of eliminating the Chinese Communists and it would eventually prove costly indeed.

The second instance was after World War 2 when Chiang decided to go all in by trying to contest Manchuria with the CCP.  On paper, it looked possible given Chiang’s superiority in troop levels, population, territory, and temporary foreign aid.  In reality, his regime was broke, largely corrupt, and his soldiers and officers poorly motivated versus their CCP equivalents.  Realistically, Chiang could have held onto most of Southern and Central China, perhaps even much of the North, but Manchuria was a region too far.  Given the CCP forces’ main sphere of power was Manchuria, that the neighbouring communist regimes in the Soviet Union, Outer Mongolia, and North Korea could support the communists in Manchuria and given the sheer size of the region (as big as Western Europe) and its distances from Chiang’s powerbase in central China suggests it was overly ambitious for him to contest Manchuria.

Manchuria was a tempting prize due its significant industrial base (still the most extensive in China even after the Russians had dismantled and stolen much of it after 1945) and it would have been difficult not to fight for it for domestic reasons, but with hindsight, it would have been the right decision.  Chiang’s American advisors were against it due to military and logistical reasons and Chiang himself realized the potential risks but ultimately he went ahead hoping his larger, better equipped army could defeat the CCP and win the Civil War in short order.  In reality, Manchuria became a death trap for his forces who became bogged down in the cities at the end of tenuous lines of communication and surrounded by Mao’s forces in the countryside.  Chiang’s forces won many battles in Manchuria, but the CCP had the main advantages in the region and inevitably cut off the KMT garrisons in the cities and reduced them one by one.  By the time the communists took Manchuria Chiang’s best forces had been lost, his regime was thoroughly discredited at home and abroad, and the rest of China would fall to the CCP relatively easily.  

Thus, trying to fight for all of China, especially Manchuria, was folly when Chiang could probably have held onto most of the rest of it given the CCP’s weakness outside of Manchuria.  This would have given a rich and significant part of China to Mao, but much like the situation with North and South Korea, as well as West and East Germany, Chiang’s part of China was geopolitically stronger and with American aid it would have easily outperformed Mao’s Manchurian equivalent that would likely have stagnated into oblivion, or irrelevance, as these other communist regimes eventually did.  While much of this is speculation it was still more probable than winning a complete political and military victory over Mao post-1945.

The Jury is Out:

The question remains:  Was Chiang Kai-Shek a visionary leader who was overwhelmed by insurmountable odds or to quote Rana Mitter a “politically gifted but tragically flawed” leader who couldn’t rise above survival mode or his own shortcomings?  The truth is a combination of both.  Chiang’s vision regarding governance and society holds more currency in East Asia, China, and especially Taiwan than the all but discredited ideals of Mao Zedong.  The accomplishments Chiang managed in China and Taiwan were not inconsequential and were impressive given the circumstances he was presented with.  Indeed, there is no denying the bad luck, numerous enemies, and countess obstacles he faced.  As Paul H. Tai and Tai-chun Kuo have noted “ruling China and Taiwan for nearly half of a century, from 1928-1975, in an era of unprecedented international and domestic upheavals, the man must have possessed a level of administrative-military competence to meet the exigencies of his days and must have substantial achievements to warrant the support of his millions of followers.”

On the other hand, he usually put his loftier goals on hold, inevitably concentrating on ensuring his regime’s survival one day at a time and muddling through one crisis after the other.  Likewise, only Chiang, not his enemies or historical circumstances, can be held responsible for personal failings such as micromanaging, tolerating widespread corruption, neglecting social and economic issues in China, and a propensity to gamble in risky situations hoping either a lucky break, a turn of events, or an outside force would see him through.  Such gambles had eventually paid off during the Northern Expedition, his scuffles with Chinese warlords, the first part of the Civil War with the CCP, and even the conflict with Japan, but everything came crashing down afterwards when he went all in by fighting the communists over Manchuria.  There would be no Deus ex machina such as American intervention, or Stalin restraining Mao, to turn the tide in the last part of the Chinese Civil War.

Chiang’s reputation and legacy might be undergoing an overdue rehabilitation, and caricatures about him are slowly evaporating, but losing all of mainland China will always count against him.  History glorifies few who lose.  It may champion great generals who still lost like Hannibal Barca, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Erwin Rommel but not Chiang Kai-Shek.  Apparently losing China is in a whole other category than losing Carthage, France, or Germany!

Whatever one’s viewpoint on Chiang Kai-Shek what cannot be denied was his historical significance.  As Simon Whistler said after some harsh words regarding Chiang’s legacy:

What Chiang Kai-Shek was though was significant.  As the general who ended the warlord era, oversaw the Nanking decade, steered China through a Japanese invasion, and a civil war, then founded modern Taiwan, Chiang has an outsized impact on Eastern Asian history.  Perhaps more so than anyone else.

Likewise, Chiang’s importance was recognized throughout his career, even by rivals and enemies.  It wasn’t Sun Yat-sen who launched the Northern Expedition, Wang Jingwei (Chiang’s main political competitor) who managed the Nanking decade, or Mao Zedong who led the fight against Japan or overturned the unequal treaties with the western powers.  To prove a point Chiang was not above resigning to show when he was irreplaceable.  When his detractors in the KMT tried to outmaneuver him in the Northern Expedition, and in the aftermath of the Mukden Incident, Chiang temporarily stepped down and watched as others failed to govern and waited to be called back to power.  Stalin, who usually schemed against Chiang with the CCP, realized he was the only person who could lead China in a war against Japan; a reality that China’s warlords and even Mao Zedong had to swallow with considerable bitterness.  Churchill and the Americans concluded likewise despite many reservations they had about him.  Chiang realized all of this and in one of his less humble moments said “wherever I go is the Government itself.  I am the State.”

Perhaps it is fair to end with some words by Chiang Kai-Shek himself:  “If when I die, I am still a dictator I will certainly go down into the oblivion of all dictators. If, on the other hand, I succeed in establishing a stable base for a democratic government, I will be remembered forever in every home in China.”

Chiang did die a dictator and his democratic credentials were dubious to say the least, but his efforts did establish the conditions which allowed Taiwan to become a vibrant, prosperous democracy.  As China becomes more oppressive and belligerent under Xi Jinping, who has been confirmed as China’s leader for life, along with the likelihood China will become grey before it becomes rich, and the fact the China model with its ideologically barren mix of political communism and rapacious capitalism will ultimately prove unappealing and incapable of winning over people across the world over the admittedly imperfect, but still adaptive system of liberal democracy, the CCP’s vision for China and the world will eventually be consigned to the ash heap of history.  Whatever the last word on Chiang Kai-Shek in history will be there is every indication that his model for China (based on Taiwan) will prevail in the end.  That is a bet the Generalissimo himself would not have hesitated to take.


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