General Joseph Stilwell (1883-1946), known affectionately as "Vinegar Joe," is one of my favorite American war heroes. His career—West Point, World War I in France, service as a military attache in Beijing and, most notably, command of U.S. forces in China, India and Burma during World War II—is masterfully described in Barbara Tuchman’s 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning Stilwell and the American Experience in China: 1911-1945.
Recently I discovered that it’s possible to see the man in action in The Stilwell Road, a 1947 U.S. War Department documentary, narrated by Ronald Reagan. Using vintage film footage, it tells the story of the general’s effort to retake northern Burma from the Japanese and supply beleaguered Chinese forces under Generalissmo Chiang Kai-Shek by building an 500-mile road across Pangsau Pass in the Himalayas. The Stilwell Road, as it came to be known, was an impressive engineering feat, completed in 1944, costing millions of dollars, thousands of lives and the good will of Air Force commander Claire Chennault who favored flying supplies over “The Hump” instead building a precarious land link from India to China.
Someday, I’d love to follow the Stilwell Road, though its most accessible portal is located in a rough, isolated corner of India plagued by unrest, terrorism and tension with neighboring China. I’d like to see the Stilwell monument in the West Point Cemetery and the plaque on his house in Carmel, California.
But there’s one “Vinegar Joe” site I have visited and won’t forget: the Stilwell Museum in Chongqing, China, where the general lived while liaising with Chiang Kai-Shek, then fighting both the Japanese and a Communist insurgency that would spiral into China’s long and brutal Civil War, ending in the establishment of the Peoples Republic. While Stilwell was there he grew increasingly disenchanted with corruption and subterfuge in Chiang‘s Nationalist government, ultimately opening communication with the Red Army under Mao Zedong, earning him hero status in contemporary China. The museum has artifacts and displays (with English subtitles) outlining the general‘s distrust of the Nationalists and efforts to put American relations with China on a new track. Ultimately, the powerful American China Lobby, headed by Time magazine publisher Henry Luce, persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to recall him. Sometimes I wonder how the China-U.S. relationship would have unfolded had Stilwell’s voice been heard.