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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Why the Treaty of Versailles was not Responsible for the Outbreak of World War 2

“One day, President Roosevelt told me that he was asking publicly for suggestions about what the war should be called. I said at once, ‘The Unnecessary War.’ There never was a war more easy to stop than that which has just wrecked what was left of the world from the previous struggle.”

-Winston Churchill

There is probably no other peace treaty in history that has been as vilified as the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 that ended World War 1. While the great political thinker Machiavelli suggested that defeated “people should either be caressed or crushed” the Versailles Treaty seemingly got the worst of both worlds by humiliating Germany but not weakening her enough that she could not rebuild and seek revenge. Certainly a case can be made that the treaty itself had considerable flaws and helped build resentment and anger that contributed to events and policies that led to World War 2, but that does not mean it was directly responsible for, or even mostly responsible, for the outbreak of war in 1939. Between 1919 and 1939 were twenty tumultuous years that saw disastrous events, flawed policies and miscalculations by nations, missed opportunities and countless other factors which ultimately resulted in a Second World War breaking out in 1939. Hitler’s rise to power was not inevitable, Britain, France, America and Russia made mistakes, and had many opportunities to prevent Germany from developing a strong military, and countless decisions and events from 1919 and 1939 influenced the unlikely outbreak of hostilities in 1939 which Winston Churchill referred to as “The Unnecessary War.” The Versailles Treaty led to circumstances that helped lead to war in 1939, but by itself was not among one of the major reasons that started World War 2.

With hindsight it is generally believed that the Treaty of Versailles was unnecessarily harsh to Germany but this is debatable depending if one accepts the view that World War 1 was mostly due to German aggression. There is question as to whether or not Germany deliberately took advantage of the July Crisis in 1914 to launch a preemptive war against France and Russia due to her real or imagined fears of being encircled by hostile powers; or if she stumbled into war due to miscalculations and carelessly promising unconditional support to Austria-Hungary, which started the countdown to war by being inflexible towards Serbia. What is not debatable is that as the war continued German war aims became increasingly grandiose, aggressive and ultimately sought nothing less than the de facto domination of Europe. As was seen by the terms the Germans had in mind for Belgium and France, (reducing the former to a vassal state and effectively neutering the latter), along with the exceedingly harsh treaty she inflicted upon Russia in 1918 there can be no question that a potential German victory in the war would have seen a far less generous settlement for the Entente Powers.

Whereas the Versailles Treaty in 1919 spared German independence and allowed her to keep most of her industry, territory and resources (losing only 25,000 square miles, 7 million people and none of the vital Ruhr industrial region) the German treaty inflicted upon Russia (the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918) stripped the latter of over 1 million square miles including Finland, the Baltic States, Poland, part of Belorussia, the Ukraine, and even much of the Caucasus. This territory included over 55 million people (roughly 1/3rd of the Russian Empire’s population) as well as the majority of Russia’s industry, one third of her arable land, the vast majority of her coal fields and 1/4 of her railroads. Thus, unlike the Treaty of Versailles that weakened Germany but allowed her to remain a great power, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk temporarily reduced Russia to a third rate power. The treaty shocked and humiliated the Russians, but Lenin decided to accept the treaty because of how weak Russian forces were and calculated, correctly, that the Western Entente Powers would win the war against Germany ultimately.

While critics of the Versailles Treaty either downplay or ignore the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk imposed on Russia by Germany, arguable because it was much worse than the former treaty and undermines the narrative that Germany was not overly aggressive and ambitious in her war aims, they usually know next to nothing about the harsh peace treaty Germany inflicted upon France in the aftermath of the “Franco-Prussian War” in 1871. This treaty was no less humiliating and in some ways harsher than the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. It annexed Alsace-Lorraine to Germany, forced the French to pay 5 Billion Francs in war reparations (or 350 billion dollars in 2011 rates) and occupied perhaps a third of France’s territory (including Paris) until the French paid up. By contrast in 1919 France merely regained the lost provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, only a few towns along the Rhine were occupied by Entente forces and the huge sum that the Germans were suppose to pay after Versailles, initially set at 269 billion gold marks was reduced to 112 billion by 1929 and Germany suspended paying the reparations in 1931 after having paid little of the overall sum over the past decade. In fact Britain and America gave more money in loans to Germany by 50% in the interwar years compared to what money Germany paid in reparations during this period. By contrast the French managed to repay the whole sum of her reparations by 1873!

Adding another insult to France the Prussian King William I was crowned the German Emperor in the Palace of Versailles in occupied France in 1871 as well.

However, regardless of Germany’s harsh peace treaties towards France in 1871 and Russia in 1918, or German ambition and aggression in both conflicts, it is necessary to judge the 1919 Treaty against Germany on its own merits. Previous German imposed treaties on enemies did not necessarily justify an exceedingly harsh treaty being inflicted upon Germany, and if the treaty failed to guarantee peace in the long run then it certainly would deserve some censure at least.

Remembering Machiavelli’s quote above it would arguably have made more sense (in hindsight especially) for the major Entente Powers (Britain, France and America) to have either crushed German power decisively or been lenient and hoped a post Kaiser Germany could be convinced to rejoin the international community. Instead they settled upon a far from perfect middle course for various reasons. France, unsurprisingly after having suffered the most of the three powers with 6 million casualties (1/4 of them dead) wanted to severely curb German power. Meanwhile America, which had joined the war late, suffered little, was motivated by the well meaning (though arguably naive) Wilson’s 14 points which suggested to be lenient on Germany as well as producing a more peaceful, liberal and fair post war world. Britain adopted a mid position between both extremes wanting to restrain German power but arguably did not want to cripple it given that it would upset the balance of power in Europe (perhaps cynically assuming it would grant too much power to her traditional enemy France) as well as hurting German finance and trade which the British probably hoped would help rebuild the British and international economics and finance in the postwar era.

Ultimately the peace terms did not secure France against future German power and aggression, usher in Wilson’s unlikely utopian World, or help the German economy rebuild to help world finance and economics. With hindsight a treaty that would have allowed Germany to save face, rebuild her economy but also purge her militarism would have preferable but given the anger and pain felt by the Entente Powers in 1919, as well as their different interests, this was not likely to have occurred.

What of the actual peace terms? Besides the return of Alsace-Lorraine back to France, a limited amount of German territory, with a roughly equivalent portion of population, was given to countries such as Poland, Belgium, and oddly enough Denmark which had been neutral in the war. While such losses were not beneficial to Germany they were not disproportionate and did little to hurt Germany’s population, industry or power over all. Perhaps the most galling aspect for the Germans was the creation of Poland, which was partially carved out of German territory which separated Germany proper from East Prussia and also placed Danzig (a city with a majority German population) under international control. Thus, like the treaty in general, the territorial revisions did not significantly hurt German power, but angered the German people.

Other terms of the treaty included Germany losing her colonies, the aforementioned harsh reparations, as well as military restrictions that dictated Germany could not have tanks, submarines, warplanes or an army above 100,000 soldiers. Regarding the colonies there was generally little anger considering they gave little benefit to Germany and the majority of Germans did not care about them. The military restrictions obviously angered the military establishment in Germany (which had effectively dominated Germany since Hindenburg and Ludendorff took over in 1916) and much of the German population in a society that was heavily militaristic and regimented. While it was understandable from the Entente point of view to disarm Germany which had nearly beaten a considerably numerical and material superior alliance it is obvious with hindsight that declawing Germany completely would not be realistic unless the nation was also divided up and crushed.

However, by far the most insulting term from the German point of view was the war guilt clause which put the responsibility for the war squarely on Germany. Whatever one thinks about German ambition, aggression and war crimes in World War 1 this was not completely accurate, gave no real benefit (besides propaganda value) to the Entente and more than anything else alienated and angered the Germans. Besides attempting to exorcise wounded pride and being vindictive it is hard to see what the Entente Powers hoped to gain from this.

Either way, these were the terms the German delegation was given (or dictated to) when they came to Versailles in 1919: Significant but not ruinous territorial and population losses, a limited occupation of a few cities in the Rhineland, harsh war reparations (though no worse than what they had given to Russia or France), the loss of pointless colonies the Germans did not care about, but admittedly harsh military restrictions and an insulting clause blaming the whole war on Germany. The German delegation was shocked by the terms and wanted to consult with their government in Berlin and hoped to water down some of the terms. This was generally dismissed by the Entente Powers and in a notable verbal protest one of them said “What will history say?” The response by Georges Clemenceau (arguably France’s best leader in the war) was harsh and to the point: “They won’t say Belgium invaded Germany.”

Thereupon the German delegates signed the treaty, its clauses went into effect (though many would later be revised or quashed in Germany’s favor) and according to many historians, armchair generals, and commentators the outbreak of World War 2 was now inevitable. But how realistic is such a line of reasoning? Of course good arguments can be made that the Versailles Treaty had many flaws, and was PARTIALLY responsible for the outbreak of World War 2, but the idea that it made the later war inevitable is absurd. It assumes that the conduct of nations and politicians, their policies and decisions, events, and unseen circumstances had no bearing between 1919 and 1939 on influencing the path to war. The idea that one treaty alone could pull history and humanity by the hair screaming without the latter having any say or chance to influence events is illogical to say the least.

To take a few examples, that would be like suggesting the Franco-Prussian War led to World War 1 simply because of French resentment over the treaty in 1871 whereas in fact arms races, alliances, realpolitik, war plans, ambitious politicians, miscalculations, and a tragic event like the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand between 1871-1914 produced what was hardly an inevitable war. Or what if Rome had not taken Sardinia and Corsica after the First Punic War, had not backed Saguntum unconditionally against Hannibal, or the Carthargian military and council been more conciliatory to Rome so as to avoid the Second Punic War? Or look at the Cold War. How many times did it seem as though the Soviets and Americans would start World War 3, and an entire generation assumed they would eventually be nuked, but so many decisions, circumstances and leaders used their initiative to forego such an outcome? As the respected historian Robert Citano once said regarding war and history “What happened happened is not to say what happened had to happen.”

Small acts and quick decisions can have disproportionate effects in history! The ransacking of a French pastry shop in Mexico contributed to the French invasion of that country in the 1838, the search for an AWOL Japanese soldier near the Marco Polo Bridge was the catalyst to the start of World War 2 in Asia. Hezbollah never would have imagined that the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers in the summer of 2006 would lead to a major war against Israel and the massive bombing of Lebanon. A Kuwaiti delegation member to Iraq in the summer of 1990 would never have guessed that his insinuation that Iraqi women were like prostitutes would anger Saddam Hussein into invading Kuwait.

High officials and statesmen can also make quick and/or stupid decisions that lead to war no matter how much they would have preferred to avoid it. General MacArthur ignored clear warnings in the summer of 1950 not to cross the 38th parallel into North Korea by the Chinese while his political superior Harry Truman failed to reign him in. The new Sultan of the Zanzibar Sultanate dismissed a British ultimatum recklessly in 1896 without much thought considering his island was vulnerable to overwhelming British naval power and his country’s surrender after a mere 38 minutes made the war the quickest in history. Gamal Abdel Nasser’s declaration of a blockade of the Straits of Tiran in 1967 was made more as a sop to his people and Arab opponents than to antagonize Israel, but the latter saw it as an act of war and this led to the Six Day War which dramatically changed the Middle East.

The point being that no matter how seemingly important and far ranging certain things in history appear to be that nothing in history and human events is preordained or inevitable. The time period between 1919 and 1939 was no exception. Would any rational person or seasoned historian in 1919 have believed that a bitter, poor, mediocre Austrian artist, and former corporal named Adolf Hitler would come to control Germany and lead his nation to dominate Europe from the English Channel to the Volga? Would they believe that this relatively inexperienced uneducated upstart was capable of fooling the supposedly cultured and brilliant statesmen in Paris, London, and Washington D.C. or could out maneuver such a cynical and weathered politician like Stalin?

Keeping this in mind we should look at the events, decisions and mishaps between 1919 and 1939 with more scrutiny instead of being intellectually lazy by merely suggesting Versailles produced an unalterable timeline to World War 2. Between these two dates there was the Great Depression, Hitler’s rise to power, the Munich Conference, the Spanish Civil War, conflicts in Manchuria, Ethiopia, and China, policies to appease Germany, American commitment to isolationism, the rise of Communism in Russia, and Stalin’s opportunist foreign policy. There were treaties and agreements after 1919 that revised certain harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty, internal and foreign distractions for countries that could have confronted Hitler, countless missed opportunities to check German rearmament and prevent German expansion, and unique personalities such as Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Chamberlain all of which influenced the march to war.

Regarding events, there were plenty of far ranging, momentous, and decisive moments in history between 1919 and 1939 that did just as much to provoke WW2, if not more so, than the Versailles Treaty. The Great Depression is among the top of the list considering in the decade after Versailles many of its more harsh terms were watered down, Germany was recovering, and things were seemingly pointing towards peace. Yet the Great Depression crushed economies across the world, ruined millions of lives, and led to a rise in political movements and politicians that advocated often drastic methods and ideas such as Fascism, military expansion, racial hatred, etc. While some historians like to point a simple line from Versailles to Hitler his party was marginal and relatively unpopular until the Great Depression hit Germany hard and then suddenly his harsh rhetoric and revolutionary ideals had more appeal. For example, in the 1928 German election the Nazi party won 800,000 votes but in 1930 after the start of the Great Depression it won six and a half million votes in another election! And what if Hitler had been killed in his Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, or executed or imprisoned for decades instead of surviving and serving a short term. What if Hindenburg, who beat Hitler for the presidency of Germany in 1932, had not agreed to the political machinations in 1932-1933 that led to Hitler becoming Chancellor? Or what if Hindenburg had not died suddenly in 1934, allowing Hitler to consolidate power, but instead lived a few more years and kept Hitler mostly in check?

What if Japanese aggression in Manchuria and China, Italian aggression in Abyssinia, as well as the proxy war in the Spanish Civil War had not influenced the League of Nations and western powers like England and France to be distracted from the rise of the Nazis, German rearmament or fostered an increasingly hostile world environment that encouraged Hitler to be more aggressive? What if the French Army had called Hitler’s bluff when he remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936 (German forces had orders to retreat if the French Army attacked)?

What if instead of giving Hitler the Sudetenland during the Munich Conference in 1938 the French and British had backed Czechoslovakia unconditionally in the case of war? The Czech Army was strong, her defenses on the German border were said to be nearly as strong as the Maginot line, the German Army was much less effective in 1938, and Stalin was leaning towards backing the Czechs and Western powers over Germany. There was also the potential of a military coup being organized against Hitler by high officials such as General Halder who feared war at this point and some German representatives of this faction even contacted the French and British. Even had war broken out and Hitler had not backed down, the French, British, Czechoslovakia, and possibly even Russia would have had a much better chance of winning and limiting a conflict to part of Europe instead of the global conflagration that started in 1939.

What about the conduct of the great powers who could have opposed the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, German rearmament, and challenged him anytime from the occupation of the Rhineland to the invasion of Poland? Britain, France, America, and Russia missed many chances to avert war, or at least fighting one against Germany under favorable conditions that would have almost certainly resulted in the latter being defeated much easier than what actually occurred.

Even when war actually came in 1939 the British and French had most of the advantages against Germany such and manpower, troop, tank and artillery levels, more industry and resources, American lend lease, etc. As German rearmament and power peaked between Munich and the invasion of Poland this was the time the Germans had the best chance of starting and winning a war. However, it need not have come to this.

Regarding France, she is usually the most scapegoated for failing to stand up to German aggression due to her proximity to Germany, her supposedly first rate Army when World War 2 began, as well as her quick collapse in 1940. But this is extremely unfair. Soon after 1918 America retreated into isolationism, Russia succumbed to revolution, civil war, and the excesses of Stalinism, while Britain disarmed and focused on her empire. France had suffered the most casualties proportionately among these major powers, had much less population and industry than Germany, and after seeing her former allies lose interest in containing Germany the French were left to carry the bag. The fact that by 1939 the French had more artillery and more and better tanks than Germany, and the impressive Maginot Line is impressive given the population and industrial advantages Germany held.

Despite this, France made her share of mistakes (many mentioned above) which led to war. Relying on unreliable allies and the League of Nations to protect her or stop aggression are mistakes in hindsight, as was France’s missed opportunities to confronted Hitler in 1936 over the Rhineland or in 1938 over the Sudetenland. Meanwhile although the French were more likely to confront Hitler than the British in this period they still went along with appeasement even though the French Premier at the time of Munich questioned the wisdom of it famously saying after the agreement “the fools if only they knew what they are cheering.” On the other hand France deserves more credit than the other major powers because she rearmed most effectively in the late 1930s to confront Germany, and tried to form alliances to contain her, more often than Britain, America, and Russia.

Most of Britain’s mistakes overlap with France’s although the former has less excuses because she had more money, a bigger empire, did less to confront the Germans in the postwar period and did more to appease Germany. Foremost was to abandon France to confronting Germany more or less alone early on after 1918. Britain had by 1918 the biggest Airforce and Navy, and the most effective (if not biggest) Army among the Entente Powers so to leave France alone in this period was selfish and tragic. Besides appeasement which ranks high on the list, Britain also dropped the ball by refusing to close the Suez Canal to Italian supplies and reinforcements during Mussolini’s war against Abyssinia. At the least this would have crippled the war effort, and at the most signaled to Hitler that Britain could potentially oppose his aggression. Another mistake was the British-German naval agreement of 1935 (without consulting France) where the British allowed the Germans to build up to 35% of the Royal Navy’s tonnage. On one hand it seems lopsided in Britain’s favor but on the other it allowed the Germans to build far more naval forces than under the Versailles Treaty, obviously disheartened the French, and allowed Hitler to build submarines and capital ships that did a lot of damage to Britain in WW2.

America did next to nothing between 1919 and 1939 to stop World War 2. After rejecting the Treaty of Versailles and the death of Woodrow Wilson America retreated into isolationism until Pearl Harbor. On one hand history and world opinion is unfair to America because she is either condemned for being neutral or entering wars too late (WW1, WW2, Rwanda, Syria, etc.) while on the other she is accused of aggression and warmongering (rightly or wrongly) in other cases such as Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq, etc. Yet objectively, if with hindsight, America’s withdrawal from European affairs, and retreat into isolationism after World War 1 had tragic consequences. If Britain and France made mistakes in Europe between both wars America decided not to get involved at all. American foreign policy showed no real influence or importance in this period regarding treaties, appeasement, actions, policies, etc. This was also the case in Asia where America did nothing after Japan took Manchuria, invaded China in 1937 or bombed the USS Panay.

Again, those who criticize modern day American intervention and supposed militarism should think twice before condemning her anti-war and isolationism in an earlier period, but given that America, even after the Great Depression, was the world’s foremost financial and industrial power and had suffered little in WW1, it is regrettable that she did not back France’s efforts against Germany or chime in regarding Hitler’s successive aggression. It can, to America’s credit, be said that America allowed lend-lease to France and Britain after 1939, and did her best to prop up Britain when she stood alone against Germany from 1940 afterwards, but this was nearly too little too late.

What of Russia? Given her terrible losses during World War 1, the subsequent Russian Civil War, as well as Stalin’s brutal rule which included famine, collectivization, and terror campaigns against the Soviet people it would be an understatement to suggest that Russia was too busy dealing with internal matters to focus on restraining Germany in the inter-war period. This was not helped by the initial foreign backing of the White Russian forces in the Russian Civil war which saw British troops in North West Russia and American and Japanese troops in Siberia fighting Communist forces. This and the subsequent behavior of western states that treated the new Soviet state as a rogue regime unsurprisingly led Stalin to be more wary of Britain and France than a weakened Germany for most of the inter-war era. This resulted in some collaboration between Stalin and the Weimar Republic including German tank commanders and pilots training at Soviet sites such as in Kazan to circumvent German disarmament after the Versailles Treaty.

However, the coming to power of Hitler and the Nazis in 1933, along with their racist and anti-communist rhetoric and actions that were pointed at the Soviet Union (and stated openly in Mein Kampf), should have alerted Stalin to the growing danger of Germany. As Mein Kampf clearly advocated aggression against Russia, and as Hitler began dismissing the Versailles Treaty, and rearming Germany’s armed forces it was clearly in Stalin’s interests to oppose Germany. Stalin did in fact do some measures in the mid to late 1930s in such regards by backing the Republican faction in the Spanish Civil War, telling communist parties across Europe to oppose fascism, and debating backing France and Britain at the time of the Sudetenland crisis had they decided to confront instead of appeasing Hitler.

Yet in the end Stalin did nothing effective to deter or oppose Hitler and changed his focus in the late 1930s to reach an accommodation with him. With the purging of much of his military officers around this time Stalin’s armed forces were not in a great state and as Hitler rearmed, and annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia Stalin foresaw the outbreak of War between Germany and France and Britain over Poland. Thus he responded favorable to Hitler’s overtures in August 1939 and signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact which made Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany de facto allies from late 1939 to mid 1941. Stalin gambled that the Western allies and Germany would bleed each other in a long war which Russia could then exploit to overrun Europe. In reality it allowed Hitler to secure his eastern flank after the defeat of Poland (and Russia’s cynical absorption of Eastern Poland) and aided Germany by Russia supplying crucial resources such as oil and wheat which kept Germany’s war effort alive from 1939-1941. Stalin’s folly was clearly seen after the German invasion of Russia in June 1941 which led to the initial destruction of most of the Red Army, the deaths of 27 million Soviet people, the overrunning of most of European Russia, and the most destructive and inhumane front of World War 2.

Therefore, rather than using smart policies to prevent German rearmament, or to contain or confront Hitler, the Great powers failed to collaborate with each other and did not act decisively on their own in such regards either. France refused to use her military when it was still vastly superior to Germany’s during crucial episodes of German aggression. Britain relied on appeasement and did not rearm sufficiently in the inter-war era. America remained committed to isolationism and played no notable role in Europe for twenty years. Russia eventually sided with Hitler only to be backstabbed in 1941. It was a combination of caution, miscalculations, selfishness, and opportunism by policy makers in Paris, London, Washington and Moscow that led to all of this more so than a treaty in 1919 that was subsequently watered down and eventually ignored.

Finally, whatever the flaws of the Versailles Treaty what if it had been enforced? What if instead of watering down terms which allowed Germany to not pay the war reparations and rearm the former Entente Powers stood firm regarding the treaty’s terms? What if Britain and France had threatened or even invaded Germany at the first sign that Germany was breaking the Treaty? What if Europe united in the instance of any clause being breached and instituted a blockade, or trade embargo, that would quickly wreck a German economy that was reliant on imports? It is far easier to strangle aggression in the cradle and the major powers could have easily thwarted German aggression at its earliest manifestation, and could have even avoided a full scale war as late as 1938. In the end it was the discarding of the Treaty of Versailles, rather than the observance of it, that led to war.

The Treaty of Versailles helped create some of the conditions which led to World War 2, but was in no way decisive regarding the outbreak of war in 1939. Hitler was not predestined to come to power and be allowed to flaunt the Treaty at will. Britain, France, America, and Russia could have followed better polices, made smarter decisions, confronted or contained Germany, and exploited several opportunities to stop a major war from starting or at least starting one on terms much more favorable for them. Unforeseen events and trends such as the Great Depression, several wars between 1919 and 1939, and the rise of Fascism created an international atmosphere that was unpredictable, dangerous, and likely to lead to major conflict. The Treaty of Versailles itself was not ideal but many of its terms were later watered down or quashed, Germany was not forced to repay much of the supposedly ruinous war reparations and in the end the treaty was never enforced to any effective degree but abandoned by the former Entente Powers and ignored by Hitler. Perhaps the last word should be given to Margaret MacMillan who authored one of the best books on the Versailles Treaty, Paris 1919, in which she wrote it would be folly “to ignore the actions of everyone – political leaders, diplomats, soldiers, ordinary voters – for twenty years between 1919 and 1939” and that “when war came in 1939, it was the result of twenty years of decisions taken or not taken, not of arrangements made in 1919.” History is not predestined by a few flaps of butterfly wings but the result of countless decisions and factors which combine for the good or ill of humanity.


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