Stilwell, Joseph Warren (1883-1946)

National Archives.  Cropped by author.

Stilwell is probably best known to the American public from Barbara Tuchman's bestselling Stilwell and the American Experience in China, which also has largely shaped American impressions of Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang. The official U.S. Army history also takes a broadly sympathetic view of Stilwell, and the popular impression of Stilwell is of a gruff, irascible, but brilliant military leader who accomplished much with little and could have accomplished much more but for the narrowmindedness of Chiang and the indifference of the top Allied leadership. In fact, this is almost an exact inversion of the truth: An honest evaluation of Stilwell's wartime record suggests that he is possibly the second most overrated American general of the Pacific War.

Joseph Stilwell was born to a patrician New York family in 1883. He graduated from West Point in 1904, where he first showed an unusual proficiency for mastering foreign languages, and served in the Philippines.  During the First World War, he served as an instructor at West Point and in staff positions in France, including intelligence officer of IV Corps, but was never able to realize his desire to lead men in combat. However, he was caught in the explosion of an ammunition dump that left him virtually blind in his left eye.

Between the wars, Stilwell served in China, becoming fluent in the language, acquiring a Chinese name (Shih Ti-wei, "leading history in the right direction") and closely observing the opening stages of the war with Japan.  He had served with Marshall in 15 Regiment at Tientsin in 1926, and Marshall later made him head of the tactical section of the Infantry School at Fort Benning, where he first acquired the nickname "Vinegar Joe." Marshall wrote in Stilwell's efficiency report that Stilwell was "qualified for any command in peace or war", rare praise from the future Chief of Staff.Returning to China as military attaché in 1935, Stilwell supervised road construction in Shansi and immersed himself in the world of rural China, thereafter professing a great affection for the common Chinese man. At the time of Pearl Harbor, he commanded III Corps at Fort Ord, California, having distinguished himself as a corps commander in the Louisiana Maneuvers.

In spite of his age, poor eyesight, and stomach problems (he would eventually die of stomach cancer,) Marshall had slated Stilwell to command an Allied invasion of Northwest Africa in early 1942. Much to Stilwell’s frustration, this opportunity was snatched away on 21 January 1942, when Roosevelt ordered him sent to China to serve as Chiang’s chief of staff.  (The African operation was cancelled, only to be revived much later as Operation Torch.) At the time, Roosevelt considered China to be of decisive importance to the Pacific War.  The first choice for the China post was Hugh Drum, one of the most senior generals in the Army, who it was thought would carry enough prestige to sway Chiang. However, Drum expressed frustration at the conflicting views within the War Department over just what his assignment would be, and he eventually let it be known that he considered the assignment beneath him. It was feared that Stilwell would be remembered in China as a mere military attaché, a post he had held in China in 1935, and so would lack sufficient face. But he was the only high-ranking, capable officer who spoke fluent Chinese. Stilwell established his headquarters in Chungking on 4 March 1942.

This was not one of Roosevelt’s better appointments. Though Stilwell professed to respect the common Chinese soldier, he had a deep contempt for most Chinese leaders and institutions, likely dating from his previous service in China. Chiang, in turn, would have preferred an officer who did not speak Chinese and was less acquainted with the realities of the Chinese Army. Stilwell wrote a scathing diary, discovered after his death, in which he derisively referred to Chiang as “Peanut,” originally Chiang’s code name in Allied communications.

The trouble in China is simple. We are allied to an ignorant, illiterate, superstitious, peasant son of a bitch.

Nor did it help that Stilwell, from a stoutly Republican family, failed to connect with Roosevelt or Harry Hopkins during his final interviews before departing for China. Neither Roosevelt nor his advisors seemed to have any clear policy for China, and Roosevelt's vision of China seemed largely based on Delano family history a century out of date.

Stilwell finally found his opportunity to lead men in combat in Burma. However, he quickly discovered that the Chinese officers nominally under his command maintained radio communications directly to Chiang and that Chiang regularly countermanded Stilwell’s orders. Stilwell eventually led an epic retreat to India, successfully covering 150 miles (240 km) in two weeks with 114 members of his command (plus one small dog), while the bulk of the surviving Chinese retreated back into Yunnan. Fenby (2003) has criticized Stilwell's walk out of Burma as a stunt that left the Chinese armies leaderless as the Japanese drove on Yunnan, but it is unclear that Stilwell's presence could possibly have made any difference. Stilwell in fact refused evacuation by air in order to stay with his headquarters, then attempted to rejoin the Chinese armies at Myitkyina, only to find the road blocked. Chiang was stunned, declaring that Stilwell "[had] abandoned my 100,000 soldiers in foreign jungles and headed off to India. Onlyl then does he send me this telegraph" (Taylor 2009).

Stilwell suffered increasingly bad relations with Chiang.  This revived his old sobriquet of “Vinegar Joe”, but journalist Joe Fisher later suggested that if St. Francis of Assisi had been sent to China to deal with Chiang, he would have become known to history as “Vinegar Frank.”  Chiang had committed his best forces to the first Burma campaign with reluctance, at the prodding of Stilwell, and at one point told him (Hsiung and Levine 1992):

In our Burma operations we must win victory and cannot afford a defeat. Why? Once the cream of Chinese troops as represented by the Fifth and Sixth armies is defeated, it would be impossible to counterattack not only in Burma but also in the whole of China. And there would be no efficient reserves in Yunnan or the Yangtze valley. The consequence would be very grave for China. A defeat in Burma would not only have serious repercussions upon the morale of the Chinese troops but upon the morale of the Chinese nation. Although two or three armies are involved, their success or defeat would have grave effect upon the Chinese people.

Chiang's worst fears were realized, and he blamed Stilwell for ignoring his instructions not to gamble with China's only crack reserves. The debacle in Burma permanently soured the relationship between the two leaders. Stilwell called for reforms of the Chinese Army that would have reduced it from 300 small, poorly equipped divisions to a much smaller number of full-strength, properly equipped divisions, but either did not understand or did not care that this would have eroded Chiang's political power base with the warlords by eliminating a large number of senior officers who owed their positions to Chiang. Stilwell's recommendation that Chiang execute four senior officers who had performed miserably in Burma could not have won him many friends among the Chinese. Stilwell soon became the focus for Chiang's frustration over Lend-Lease, the emergency redeployment of much of 10 Air Force to the Middle East in June 1942, and other irritants.

Lauchlin Currie, who supervised Lend-Lease to China for Roosevelt, was sent to Chungking in July 1942 but failed to patch up relationships between Stilwell and Chiang. Instead, Currie called for Stilwell's relief. Currie would later be accused of being a Soviet agent, though whether his allegiance to Moscow affected his handling of the situation in Chungking is not known. Probably only Marshall's unwavering support for Stilwell prevented the latter from being relieved much sooner than he was.

Stilwell also came into conflict with Chennault, who made extravagant and (as it turned out) unsupportable claims for the potential of air power in China. Chiang was encouraged to ask for Stilwell to be replaced by Chennault by James McHugh, the American naval attaché to China, who also disparaged Stilwell and praised Chennault to Wavell, an indiscretion that infuriated Marshall. Roosevelt eventually sided with Chennault, who was given command of 14 Air Force and first priority on all supplies to China. This usually left nothing with which to train and equip the Chinese troops responsible for defending the airfields.  Stilwell eventually resorted to flying Chinese recruits to India where they received American equipment and training. The divisions raised in this manner proved capable in combat, but they were much too few in number to materially alter the situation in China.

Stilwell held numerous and conflicting positions in southeast Asia.  He was simultaneously chief of staff to Chiang; deputy commander-in-chief of Southeast Asia Command; commander of U.S. forces, China-Burma-India; and administrator of Lend-Lease aid to China. He took advantage of this Byzantine command arrangement in a manner that won the sardonic admiration of William J. Slim, the only British officer he really got along with (Lewin 1976):

To watch Stilwell, when hard pressed, shift his opposition from one of the several strong-points he held by virtue of his numerous Allied, American, and Chinese offices, to another, was a lesson in the mobile offensive-defensive.

It would have been logical to place Stilwell under the command of Giffard, but Stilwell loathed Giffard and played his political cards skillfully to avoid this otherwise sensible arrangement. Only the mutual respect between Stilwell and Slim (who Stilwell believed was the only Englishman in the Far East who wanted to fight) made the command arrangements workable.

By October 1943, Stilwell had concluded that his mission to improve the efficiency of the Chinese Army was hopeless, and he focused instead on his duties as U.S. commander in China-Burma-India. Stilwell led American and Chinese troops to victory at Myitkyina, opening the way for the Ledo Road to China, but the victory came at a terrific cost to the American troops involved. Stilwell apparently did not believe he could afford to relieve his exhausted Americans while Chinese troops were still fighting, because of the likely political repercussions. This may also explain his stinginess with decorations for these troops (who nevertheless  were eventually awarded a Presidential Unit Citation, six Distinguished Service Crosses, four Legions of Merit, and 44 Silver Stars.) Whatever the reason, both the Marauders and the Chindits, who were also mercilessly used by Stilwell and suffered 90% of their casualties while under his command, developed a cordial hatred for the general. In fact, Stilwell may have come within a heartbeat of being murdered by one of his men: "I had him in my rifle sights. I coulda squeezed one off and no one woulda known it wasn't a Jap that got the son of a bitch" (Allen 1984, p. 368)

The Chinese troops serving under Stilwell were impressed by a general who led from the front and thought very highly of him, calling him hsien sheng ("the old gentleman"). Stilwell's peers were less impressed, calling him "the best three-star company commander in the U.S. Army." He was one theater commander who could plausibly be accused of spending too much time with the troops and too little time at his headquarters.

Matters came to a head when Stilwell refused to leave the front in Burma after the Japanese launched their massive Ichi-go campaign into southern China. There is evidence that Stilwell deliberately left Chiang in the lurch, either to prove the need for extensive reforms within the Chinese Army or to bring about Chiang's fall and replacement with someone more pliant. When Chennault begged Stilwell to send more supplies to the hard-pressed defenders of Hengyang, Stilwell's response was a laconic "Let them stew" (quoted by Mitter 2013). However, when Chiang finally forced Roosevelt to recall Stilwell in favor of Wedemeyer, the communiqués from Wedemeyer soon began to resemble those that had been sent by Stilwell. Slim later wrote of Stilwell that "I liked him. There was no one I would rather have had commanding the Chinese Army that was to advance with mine. Under Stilwell it would advance. We saw him go with regret..." (Allen 1984).

However, the relief of Stilwell allowed the Allies to rationalize the chain of command in southeast Asia. Sultan took over Northern Combat Area Command in Burma and Raymond A. Wheeler took over as deputy command of Southeast Asia Command, leaving Wedemeyer responsible only to Chiang. It also cleared the way for the appointment of an Allied Land Forces Commander, Southeast Asia, which took a sizable administrative load off of Slim in time for the Burma campaign of 1944. Wedemeyer was more able than Stilwell to recognize that the Nationalist government had shown "amazing tenacity and endurance in resisting Japan" and he did not share the illusions of Stilwell regarding the intentions of the Chinese Communists (Taylor 2009).

Two days after Stilwell returned to the United States, the New York Times carried a long article by Brooks Atkinson that presented a one-sided view of his relief. This was probably the origin of the prevailing legend of Stilwell. Stilwell became something of a political hot potato, and Roosevelt ordered him to say nothing to the press about his China experiences. Marshall looked for a posting suitable for a four-star general rather than reduce Stilwell to his permanent rank of major general to command a division, which Stilwell might have preferred. Stilwell served briefly as chief of Army Ground Forces, but was posted to Okinawa to command 10 Army in the projected invasion of Japan.  This never took place, and Stilwell died shortly after observing the CROSSROADS atomic tests in the Pacific.

Brooke was scathing in his assessment of Stilwell (Allen 1984):

... little military knowledge and no strategic ability of any kind ... he did a vast amount of harm ...

But then, that was pretty much Brook's opinion of all senior American commanders. Slim liked Stilwell but offered this balanced assessment (Hastings 2007):

He was much more than the bad-tempered, prejudiced, often not very well-informed and quarrelsome old man [his diaries] showed him to be. He was all that, but in addition he was a first-class battle leader up to, I should say, Corps level, and an excellent tactician, but a poor administrator. At higher levels he had neither the temperament nor the strategic background or judgment to be effective.

The Chinese view of Stilwell was summarized by T.V. Soong, brother-in-law of Chiang, who wrote a colorful memorandum to Roosevelt's right hand man, Harry Hopkins, at the TRIDENT conference (Taylor 2009):

Stilwell does not smoke, drink, or chew. He would make a typical highly regard Boy Scout leader in any country ... [but] there can be no doubt [he] ... is completely unfitted to be a major military leader ... His desire to be a Chinese Gordon is a good many years behind the time.
Hopkins responded that he tired of Stilwell's "violent intransigence" (Taylor 2009).

The diaries mentioned were published in 1948 as The Stilwell Papers and created a sensation. Stilwell, like many diarists, used his diary to vent his many frustrations, and they give a rather distorted picture of the man. The picture may have been further distorted by the editor of the papers, Time journalist Theodore White: Larrabee (1987) reports a claim that Stilwell's papers were edited to remove both anti-Russian and pro-British remarks. This probably reflected the strong support Stilwell was able to cultivate among the press during the war. Likewise, the influential and sympathetic biography of Stilwell by Barbara Tuchman may well have kept Stilwell from being treated as harshly by subsequent historians as he deserved, though this may be changing. Mitter (2013) is particularly scathing in his assessment of the general.

Service record


Born in Florida
2 Lieutenant
Graduates from West Point, standing 32nd in a class of 124.

Instructor, West Point

Instructor, West Point
Deputy chief of staff, IV Corps, France

Language officer, China

15 Infantry Regiment

Chief of staff, U.S. Forces in China

Instructor, Infantry School

Military attaché, China
Commander, 3 Brigade
Brigadier general     
Commander, 7 Division

Commander, III Corps
Major general     
Commander-designate, Operation Torch
Lieutenant general     
Chief of staff to Chiang Kai-shek and commander of American forces in China-Burma-India


Commander, Army Ground Forces

Commander, 10 Army

Commander, Western Defense Command

Dies of stomach cancer


Boatner (1996)

Costello (1981)

Fenby (2003) (accessed 2007-11-26)

Hastings (2007)

Larrabee (1987)

Lewin (1976)

Mitter (2013)

Romanus and Sunderland (1953)

Taylor (2007)

Tuchman  (1972)

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