After their very first meeting in 1908---in Tokyo, ironically---Chinese revolutionary leader Dr. Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) said of the young Chiang Kai-shek, “That man will be the hero of the Revolution: we need just such a man in our revolutionary movement.”
Thereafter, Dr. Sun became his devoted disciple’s mentor and role model, and counseled him privately. “You have a very fiery temper, and your hatred of mediocrity is excessive,” urging both caution and patience in attaining their joint goals of freedom, independence, and prosperity for China.
“You are extremely self willed and let your anger go unchecked,” Dr. Sun wrote to the man who would ultimately rise above the “Age of the Warlords” of 1920-26 to become virtual dictator of Nationalist China as his successor, with the civilian title of President and the martial one of Generalissimo, the head of the Kuomintang Party that would wage an on-again, off-again civil war of a quarter century with the peasant based People’s Liberation Army of Communist leader Ma Zedong and his subordinates, Chou En-lai, Chu The, and Lin Piao, all of whom Chiang knew personally.
Following the defeat of the domestic bandit warlords (who were never entirely beaten, however, and made shifting alliances with both sides), Chiang decided to fight the Communists first and the invading Japanese second. He stated as his strategy that the Western Allies would ultimately defeat Imperial Japan in the their own Pacific War (he was correct), but overlooked the fact that such a strategy would play into Mao’s hands by
discrediting him and his Nationalists in the eyes of the peasant masses and bring them into the Red fold ultimately; this happened.
In Chiang’s stated assertion, “The Japanese are a disease of the skin. The Communists are a disease of the heart. Although he was correct in this belief as well, it would prove to be his undoing during the post-World War II renewed Chinese civil war of 1945-49 that resulted in his expulsion from the Mainland in October 1949 to found the Taiwan Nationalist regime that still exists there today and is a periodic flashpoint of continued tension in the Far East.
Chiang was born in 1887, the son of a peasant and a Buddhist, exactly as with his great domestic rival, the former librarian and later Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao Zedong. According to Chiang biographer Brian Crozier, “From the first, he displayed a lifelong characteristic---his capacity for getting into difficult situations, then emerging from them somehow or other.”
From the first, Chiang enjoyed war games, and thus his first power base under Dr. Sun in the twenties was as Commandant of the Nationalists’ new Military Academy at Whampoa. During the decade from 1912-22, Chiang lived in Shanghai as a poor jobber on the stock exchange and as a worker for that city’s notorious gangsters of the Green Society that ran the city’s extortion rackets, leading him into later fruitful contacts with leading bankers and merchants.
IN 1923, Dr. Sun sent him to visit the Red Moscow of Lenin and Stalin, and there he met and talked with the great reorganizer of the Red Army that had emerged triumphant from the Russian Civil War, Leon Trotsky. Chiang returned home with a lifelong distrust of the Russian Communists that Dr. Sun didn’t share, preferring instead to reshape the Kuomintang along the lines of the Soviet model.
Following Dr. Sun’s death, Chiang---despite his growing power and influence---was not immediately on the short list to succeed him, but set about consolidating his base with ruthless efficiency and extending his alliances. These included the rich protectors met under his Green Society days: “They would finance his revolution, and in return he would keep the leftists out of his government,” asserted Crozier.
During the period 1927-34, Chiang consolidated his power in Shanghai, and also drove the Communists into full-scale retreat into the caves of Yenan following their epic “Long March” from which the Reds rebuilt their military power under Mao’s inspired leadership.
IN time, Chiang’s patience grew, as Dr. Su had hoped it would, leading him to adopt the maxim, “Nothing is unbearable; you just have to get used to it” as his personal maxim. He kept a diary from 1912-75, and was the author of several books either written by him or ghostwritten at his direction. He made decisions quickly, and could be ruthless in their implementation as well, once ordering 40 executions in a single day to carry out his declared policy.
On another occasion, his Green Society gangster allies and KMT fascist-style Blue Shirts Chiang was likened to both Hitler and Mussolini by his domestic opponents, but was supported by Josef Stalin until after World War II when it appeared apparent that Mao would win the civil war), killed 300 Reds with a fill 5,000 more “missing.”
Another important alliance forged was that with his third and final wife, Mayling Soong, whom he married in a Christian ceremony on Dec. 1, 1927 (the same year that he triumphed over the warlords and broke for good with the Chinese Communists.) He had courted the American-educated Mayling Soong from afar for five years by letter, and she finally agreed to the marriage after his Shanghai victory—and the proof that his second divorce was, indeed, final.
Thereafter, for the rest of his life, they were a potent force in both Chinese and international politics, charming such leaders as Churchill, MacArthur, and FDR, while enraging others like Harry S. Truman who---knowing of Chiang’s tong connections—thought that both Chiang and “the Madame” were corrupt crooks who stole US aid money for themselves and their underling cronies.
Nevertheless, because of her, Chiang himself became a devout Christian, and the pair called themselves “darling” in letters and speech for the rest of their lives together.
In 1931, Imperial Japan invaded Manchuria on China’s eastern frontier in the middle, and at the height, of Chiang’s anti-Communist war with Mao, followed six years later by the so-called “China Incident” in which the whole of Mainland China was assaulted on a broad front that would ultimately see a full nine-tenths of the entire Japanese Army engaged there.
Meanwhile, Chiang waged a trio of wars: a guerilla fight against the still simmering warlord struggle, a growing escalation of the battle with the Reds, and now the ever wider and deepening conflict with the Japanese that left China herself more and more ungovernable, and still not quite having these economic difficulties even today.
The Generalissimo---as he became known—had a pair of capitals: one at Nanking (which the Japanese captured and ravaged in savage fashion in 1937), and the second at Peking/Peiping (which means “Northern Peace”), from which the Communists have ruled since 1949 under the name of Beijing.
Chiang was said to be the undisputed ruler of China, bit in reality he only truly controlled a few provinces absolutely, with the rest being fought over with the reds, warlords, and the Japanese. His Nationalist Armed Forces absorbed an incredible 75% of the country’s annual revenue of $ 400 million, with much more during World War II years being given by her main ally, the United States.
Indeed, the United States’ role in protesting that of Japan of conquest in China led her to embargo the sending of US oil to Dai Nippon, which in turn drove the Japanese Navy to attack Pearl Harbor and the British, Dutch, and French in 1940-41 rather than go with the Strike North faction plan to fight Soviet Russia instead as Adolf Hitler urged after his own invasion there of June 22, 1941.
For their part, the Japanese had either spelt out definitively or not, since some scholars believe it to be a forgery) their aggressive intentions in their infamous “Tanaka Memorial” supposedly given by Baron Tanaka, then Japanese Prime Minister, to Emperor Hirohito on July 25, 1927. Valid or not, subsequent events showed it to present the policy that Imperial Japan appeared to be, in fact, following:
“The way to gain actual rights in Manchuria and Mongolia is to use this region as a base , and under the pretense of trade and commerce penetrate the rest of China. Armed
by the rights already secured, we shall seize the resources all over the country. Having China’s entire resources at our disposal, we shall proceed to conquer India, the Archipelago, Asia Minor, Central Asia and even Europe.”
Once the mighty United States and the British Empire were in the war in the Far East, Chiang had little doubt that there would be an ultimate Allied victory in the Pacific and, with it, the surrender of Japan’s Army in China, as, indeed, happened. In his mind, therefore, the proper course for the Nationalist government to follow was to battle the domestic Communists first, while giving the Japanese second priority. In 1941, he was already strategically foreseeing—and rightly---the coming second war for him of 1945-49.
However, his own subordinate Marshals and generals disagreed with him, and thus there came about one of the more bizarre episodes in all the annals of military history, the Sian Incident, the kidnapping of Chiang, not to remove him from prosecuting the war against the Japanese, but to force him to wage it more aggressively. It is a highly unusual tale.
On Nov. 21, 1936, Nazi Germany and Japan had signed the Anti-Comintern Pact against the USSR that for Chiang meant that now German aid and advisors to his government would dry up. Resolving once again to finish off the Communists for good, Chiang flew to Sian on Dec. 7, 1936 to visit the so called “Young Marshal,” Chang Hsueh-liang with the clear objective of inducing him to join in the sixth bandit
suppression campaign (as the Generalissimo now called his anti-Ted battles.) He sent in advance 1,500 Blue Shirts to arrest all those suspected of being Communists.
Instead, the rebels themselves arrested and disarmed the Blue Shirts in their sleep in a countercoup, the General Staff was interned, the police surrendered, and 50 planes were seized as well.
The Generalissimo himself was staying at a hotel 10 miles away at Lintung, a hot springs resort. The commander of the Young Marshal’s bodyguard arrived at 5 AM with a dozen truckloads of troops who opened fire when challenged by the sentries.
Chiang’s own bodyguards---although taken completely by surprise---resisted long enough for the wily Generalissimo to escape capture. Noted Crozier, “The Generalissimo scaled a wall 10 feet high, then fell 30 feet on the other side, into a moat…severely injuring his back…He had also lost his dentures…Several bodyguards were shot dead. Realizing he was surrounded, he walked down the mountain…and had a second fall—this time into a cave concealed by shrubs…”
Clad only in a night robe tied with a rope and barefoot, he shivered in the snow as he was surrounded by the Young Marshal’s men. In a rage, Chiang shouted, “Shoot me and finish it all,” but the captain of the guard answered, “We will not shoot. We only ask you to lead our country against Japan.
Brought before the Young Marshal, Chiang was presented with a list of eight demands: reorganize the Nanking government and admit all parties to share the joint responsibility of national salvation, end all civil war immediately and adopt the policy of armed resistance against Japan, release the leaders of the patriotic movement in Shanghai, pardon all political prisoners, guarantee the people’s freedom of assembly, safeguard the people’s rights of patriotic organization and political freedom, put into effect the Will of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, and immediately convene a National Salvation conference.
Seven of these eight points coincided with the program of Mao’s party, with which the Young Marshal was known to be in collusion. Meanwhile, browsing through the pages of Chiang’s captured diaries, his captors discovered that, indeed, the Generalissimo had meant to fight the Japanese after all. Now fate intervened to spare Chiang’s life from the Communists, who planned to first try and then execute him.
First, Stalin in Moscow ordered Mao to form a coalition government with Chiang to fight the common enemy, the Japanese, and the latter sent Chou En-lai to meet with the Young Marshal on Chiang’s behalf. The Madame also flew to Sian to personally negotiate with the Young Marshal, and Chiang was duly released to her on Christmas Day, 1936.
As for the Young Marshal himself, he spent the rest of his life as a prisoner of the Generalissimo, even after he left the Mainland in 1949 for Taiwan.
The Sian Incident---as it came to be called---had important implications for the resumption of the civil war 13 years later, for it showed that Chiang was not invincible, and that there were other forces against his one-man rule that might well unite with the Reds to overthrow him once the Japanese were defeated, as, indeed, happened.
With the official coming of World War II in the Pacific in 1941,Chiang received as his American Army advisor for the China-Burma-India theater of operations the prickly Gen. Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, who refereed to the Generalissimo disdainfully as the “Gimo” and “the peanut.” The two men could not abide each other, and, in the end, Chiang prevailed upon US President Franklin D. Roosevelt to recall him.
The American advisors in Chiang’s own headquarters were convinced that the corruption that was rife in the ranks of top officialdom and the ignoring of the peasants’ interests overall would doom the Nationalist cause after the war, and they were right.
For Chiang and the Madame, however, their apex of glory came at the Allied Cairo Conference summit in Egypt where they with both FDR and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (who objected to her presence there at all, and had also been outraged by their support of Gandhi in India.) It was at the later, fateful Yalta Conference, however (at which Chiang wasn’t present) that the decision was taken to allow Stalin’s Red Army to invade Manchuria to defeat the Japanese Kwantung Army in the closing days of the war.
Ironically for the Generalissimo, Stalin preferred Chiang to Mao as the ruler of postwar China, as he posed no threat to Russia’s eastern frontiers; already the later split of 1959 could be divined between the two Far Eastern giants. When Chiang was driven to Taiwan, his avowed policy was a future return to the mainland; the US 7th Fleet was placed between Mao and Chiang to keep both apart and maintain peace in the region.
The high point of Chiang’s hopes for a renewed role in Asia was during the Korean War when American Gen. Douglas MacArthur threatened to invade China across the North Korean border. When President Truman fired MacArthur, these hopes were dashed, and ended for good once Mao gained nuclear weapons in 1964.
The 87-year-old Generalissimo died on Apr. 5, 1975, succeeded by his son. He had lived long enough to see his country kicked out of the United Nations on Oct. 25, 1971, and the visit of his former longtime American political ally, Republican President Richard M. Nixon, formally visit Mao and Chou in Beijing during Feb. 21-28, 1972, thus inaugurating the US’ new official policy toward the People’s Republic of (Red) China, a bitter pill to swallow for the man who once ruled it all---at least on paper.
His great rival in Beijing---Mao Zedong---died in 1976.
On Oct. 23, 2003, Madame Chiang died at the age of 105 in New York. She’d moved to the United States permanently after her husband’s death, and lived in both her Manhattan apartment and on a 36-acre estate at Lattington, an exclusive Long Island suburb 35 miles east of new York. There, a large portrait of her late husband in full military regalia hung in the living room, despite his many affairs during their long marriage. She spent most of her time at Lattington, moving to New York City for good in 1998.
She’d been born Soong Mei-ling in 1898, on the southern Chinese island od hainan. Charles Soong, her father, was educated as a Chinese missionary at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, and worked closely with Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the Chinese Nationalist revolution that overthrew China’s last emperor and his Qing Dynasty in 1911.
“The only thing Oriental about me,” she once asserted, “is my face.”
The Madame was thoroughly grounded in both Western thought and philosophy, having studied in America from ages 10 through 19, graduating with honors from Wellesley College in Massachusetts in 1917 during the First World War, in which China stayed neutral.
She met her future husband in China around 1920, and they were married Dec. 1, 1927, a year after he had taken over the country’s ruling Nationalist Party. They were one of the world’s most famous couples, and she has the unique distinction of having been the only woman participant at any of the Allied wartime conferences, that at Cairo in 1943.
Since her husband spoke no English and she was fluent in it, “the Madame” translated for the Generalissimo. He disliked dealing with foreigners generally, so Madame Chiang became his official spokesperson to the world, and was even rumored to have had a torrid affair with FDR’s envoy, defeated GOP 1940 Presidential nominee Wendell L.Willkie.
Many felt that she was a powerful force for international good and friendship. Among her biggest supporters were Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Richard M. Nixon before his 1972 trip to visit Mao. Her detractors---chief among them President Truman---called her an arrogant dragon lady and propagandist for the Generalissimo’s corrupt and incompetent government.
Indeed, a US national television obituary stated that “a good deal of” American financial aid to China ended up in the Chiang’s personal bank account, which HST also charged in the 1976 book by Merle Miller, Plain Speaking.
According to the Associated Press, “Her critics---mainly young Taiwanese---dismiss her as the spokeswoman for a brutal dictator and a corrupt, repressive government that resisted democratic reforms in Taiwan.”
When President Jimmy Carter announced in 1978 that the US was breaking off diplomatic relations with Taiwan and establishing formal relations with the People’s Republic of China of the Chiangs’ mortal foe, Mao, she remained in seclusion and made no comment.
The prominent China Lobbyist had been treated for cancer and other ailments at the time of her demise. Noted the widow of her grandson, Chiang Fang Chih-yi, the Madame caught a cold, and developed symptoms of pneumonia the day before her death.
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