Tuchman uses the life of Joseph Stilwell, the military attache to China in 1935 to 1939 and commander of United States forces and allied chief of staff to Chiang Kai-shek in 1942-44, to explore the history of China from the revolution of 1911 to the turmoil of World War II, when China's Nationalist government faced attack from Japanese invaders and Communist insurgents. Her story is an account of both American relations with China and the experiences of one of our men on the ground.
Nobody really comes out well except George Sitwell, an irascible, upright person who obviously had the best interests of China at heart but was unable to carry with him either the American administration nor the wily Chiang.
With reference to Vietnam, I was staggered by the similarities between US involvement with Chaing KS and Diem 20 years later and would love this to have been discussed in this book.
The writing style is engaging and often very humorous owing to the cantankerous nature of the main protagonist. I particularly enjoyed Stillwell's constant references to CKS as 'the Peanut'. Good as it is, it does not touch on the ensuing civil war and the Kuomintang exile to Formosa - Mao is barely mentioned at all.
I wish I had read this before trying to understand US involvement in Korea, the debacle of McCarthyism and the ultimate disaster of Vietnam - all of which can be seen as a continuum from US involvement with the Peanut.
The biography is especially valuable regarding the management and subtle power plays of client rulers. Stilwell as US emissary was flatterred, challenged, ignored, played and frustrated by China's homegrown dictator Chiang Kai-Shek (codenamed "peanut" by Stilwell). The negative influence of US domestic politics on a consistent foreign policy is also highlighted by Tuchman who is a master in writing history books (here: WWII) as a commentary on current affairs (here: the Vietnam War).
His main goal was to reopen the Burma Road to give a land supply route to China. Towards the end of the war, he began a campaign to do that. He was successful in his offensive, but was recalled to Washington, at Chiang's insistence, before finishing the job. His success to that point allowed the air supply of China a much easier route than directly over "the Hump".
Tuchman's view of Stilwell is extremely sympathetic. She acknowledges that he lacked tact, but gives him the benefit of the doubt in all other areas. She puts his sense of duty and honor above all else. For example, when he performs poorly in a meeting with Roosevelt, she suggests that he refused to self-promote. She routinely comments on how he accomplished so much with so little, particularly in regards to the Burma campaign. She also credits him with understanding the situation in China better than most at the time. His predictions of Chiang's collapse would soon be proven out, although he would not live to see it.
She concludes that Stilwell was fighting a war to modernize the Chinese military when the Chinese didn't want it. Much like the US attempt to modernize China was doomed to failure without strong Chinese support, Stilwell's agenda could gain no traction if it was imposed from the outside.
This is a great book. It is easy to read and you won't find more information on Stilwell and China anywhere. Take her depiction of Stilwell with a grain of salt, but otherwise this is a must read for US-China historians or historians of the Pacific War. Tuchman's writing style is to smooth that it will appeal to a lot of non-historians as well.
Unfortunately, she passed away before I ran out of vacations. Alas.
The Chinese were not galvanized into action, and didn't share America's goals for them anyway.