History Friday: A Clash of Eagles – Stilwell vs. Chennault

Beijing Airport Expressway
It’s Quiet…too quiet
0932 hrs.

I have been engaged in the study of the Second World War on an off-and-on basis since I was about eleven. As a part of that ongoing effort, I have just finished my most recent sojourn into the China-Burma-India theater, having read Donovan Webster’s The Burma Road, Jack Samson’s The Flying Tiger,” Carl Molesworth’s Sharks over China“, White and Jacoby’s Thunder Out of China, Barbara Tuchman’s Stilwell and the American Experience in China, Maochun Yu’s OSS in China, and a skim through The Stilwell Papers. I’ll be back to dive into The Dixie Mission and the region’s logistics, but I’ve got to get through my stacks on The Russian Front, the German generals, and a couple of other topics first.

Two Generals

So I thought it would be a good time for a wrap-up, and to address the issue that has been bothering me the most: the conflict between two American generals in the theater, General Joseph Stilwell, Chiang Kai-Shek’s chief of staff and China-Burma-India theater commander, and General Claire Chennault, the retired Army captain who was Chiang’s air advisor and the organizer of the American Volunteer Group (Flying Tigers,) and, after Pearl Harbor, commander of the U.S. Fourteenth Air Force.

Whenever I get into a discussion with someone who has read a bit on World War II in China, I usually find that person has developed a preference for one or the other: Stilwell, the crotchety old China hand, admired by those who like him saw Chiang and/or the Nationalist administration as the greatest barrier to China’s success in the war; and Chennault, the leather-faced air pirate who saw airpower as the solution to Chiang’s desire to fight the Japanese into a holding action.

Over the years, I have tended to sympathize with Stilwell because I saw the failings of the Nationalist government. Having just read a series of books on both sides of the question (and a remarkably contrasting series on the European theater,) however, I now see the issue very differently.

War makes strange trench mates, but the differences between these two were such that a clash was almost inevitable. Stilwell’s background was privilege, Yankee, West Point, Infantry, and a soldier’s general who was an army lifer with connections to Chief of Staff George Marshall. Chennault was hardscrabble, Southern, Air Corps, a tactical rebel (he wrote the book on pursuit aviation when the Army Air Corps thought in terms of heavy bombers) who had been medically retired as a captain before being hired to help rebuild China’s Nationalist Air Force.

Stilwell was – nominally at least – Chiang’s military Chief of Staff, but the two clashed constantly. Chennault was an expert hired to do a specific job, but curried favor with the Generalissimo and Madame Chiang through his Southern charm, his (relatively) cheap aerial victories, and his advocacy of Chiang’s low-cost approach to fighting the Japanese.

There is much in the two men to suggest that together they could have made a superb theatre commander. But a closer examination suggests that this oversimplifies the command problems in the theatre.


Stilwell was a fighting general, so much so that he was nearly appointed by Army Chief of Staff George Marshall to lead Operation TORCH, the American landings in North Africa. Somebody then remembered that Ol’ Joe had spent several years living in China as a military attache and could speak the local tongue, so at FDR’s personal request Stilwell was sent to China. Georgie Patton went off to North Africa.
Even the eventual outcome of the war in the European theater do not automatically endorse that choice. For one line on his resume, the U.S. Army sent a fighting general to a theater that demanded a soldier diplomat. Not only was CBI a theater short on fighting forces and long on politics, for all of Stilwell’s area specialization he either never understood the finer points of playing Chinese politics, or didn’t care.

To put it charitably, Chiang was trapped between three forces: the Japanese, the Communists, and the byzantine politics of Nationalist China, while Stilwell saw only the Japanese. The General was left with a choice: try and change Chiang’s thinking, forcing him to set aside his domestic rivals and focus on the invader, or find a way to wage war within the limits of Chiang’s worldview. Stilwell chose the former – not a bad choice, but one that demanded patience and diplomatic skills beyond Stilwell’s ken.

And while correct in doubting Chennault for his almost religious belief in the decisive role of air power, Stilwell was no less parochial in his incomplete appreciation of what air power could accomplish on the battlefield.

(Pentagon wags described Stilwell as the best four-star battalion commander in the Army. The jest was accurate with regards to Stilwell’s acumen, but its implied criticism of Stilwell’s command style ignores the importance of leading a Chinese army from the front.)

Had Stilwell been a corporate executive in 2009, I would have categorized him as the China Hand Curmudgeon, someone who would never let the Chinese slip one past him, but whose distrust would create permanent barriers between him and local partners and subordinates that would preclude success.

In the end, perhaps, the fault lay with Stilwell’s assignment. No one in Washington truly understood what his role demanded, and as a result sent the wrong man to do the job.


Chennault was in the right place at the right time, in a region nobody else wanted to be in, with the support of the local head of state. A thoughtful if not visionary aerial tactician, he not only lacked an appreciation for ground war and what we now call “combined arms” battle, he was drunk on the War Can Be Won From The Air Kool-Aid that was and is the chosen nectar of birdmen everywhere.

These failings were unique to neither to Chennault nor to World War II: indeed, the U.S. military has spent much of the past six decades trying to stamp out parochialism in both attitude and thinking. But in a theatre so thin in leadership and strategy, his failings were magnified. Chennault ignored the ground war to such an extent that he found himself evacuating forward airbases because he had laid no plans to defend them against Japanese infantry.

While Chennault’s strengths were in tactical aviation – stopping the other guy’s bombers and providing close air support – his focus shifted to trying to win the war through strategic destruction of the enemy’s backfield, nearly to the point of forsaking the troops on the ground. In the early part of the war, when ground action was light and his resources few, this may have been the better choice. But his persistence in this strategic focus when the need for tactical support was greater and in view of the limited resources at hand suggest a hunger for glory rather than military calculation drove Chennault’s thinking.

And while Chennault got along with Chiang far better than the more expert Stilwell, one is left with the impression that the mutual good-feelings were driven either by Chennault’s political naivete, lick-spittle kow-towing to Chiang as his patron, or a willingness to play ball with the Generalissimo as a means of furthering his own interests. (Chennault’s lucrative postwar role in Chinese civil aviation does little to dispel such cynicism.)

Chennault, in a word, went local, and regardless of his reasons for doing so it weakened him as a commander and, I would argue, undermined American unity in China and limited Allied bargaining power with Chiang. The consequences of the latter can only be imagined.

The Leaders We Have

In a much-criticized rejoinder to troops in Iraq complaining about America’s lack of material readiness for the 2003 invasion, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told a group of assembled soldiers that “you go to war with the Army you have.”

Source and circumstances notwithstanding, the remark is an historical truism, in particular when it comes to leadership. In World War II the shortcomings of leadership in the US armed forces were most evident in the China-Burma-India theater because not only did we have to work with the leaders we had, we had so few leaders there.

As I read Rick Atkinson’s magisterial “Day of Battle” about the Italian campaign in World War II, I was struck by how the imperfections of one American army commander were somehow compensated by other officers around him. Lucien Truscott balanced Mark Clark, Omar Bradley balanced George Patton, and somehow Eisenhower, thrust into the role of Chief Military Politician, held it all together amidst competing national agendas and egos.

China and “Deep” Leadership

The CBI theater lacked the depth of leadership that would have compensated for the weaknesses of Stilwell and Chennault, allowing them to play their roles but ensuring that their failings never stood in the way of success.

But perhaps of greatest relevance, a study of Stilwell and Chennault underscores that in war, as in all human endeavors, “great” leaders are usually just the most visible element a larger team of leaders working in obscurity. The best leader, without others to compliment or offset his shortcomings, will struggle to reach his full potential.

Too readily linking the lessons of war to the conduct of business is a suspect practice. But my own experience makes clear that the enterprises that succeed in China – foreign or Chinese – are those with the strongest bench of leaders, and top men who are not afraid to be second-guessed and corrected by their juniors.

You go to war – or market – with the leaders you have. Better to have more leaders, in this case, than less.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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