Victorious in Defeat: The Life and Times of Chiang Kai-shek, China, 1887–1975

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Release Date: 
March 21, 2023
Yale University Press
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Victorious in Defeat . . . is a long overdue reappraisal of the life of the Chinese leader who helped Sun Yat-sen bring revolution to China in the early 20th century . . .”

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, there was a great political debate in the United States about “Who lost China?” The debate centered on the Chinese Civil War that Mao Zedong’s Communists won against Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists. Republicans and conservatives blamed President Truman and pro-communists in the State Department. Democrats blamed Chiang Kai-shek. Capital University history professor Alexander Pantsov in his new biography of Chiang blames both Chiang and the Democrats. Pantsov presents a strong case.

But the question of who lost China is only a small part of Pantsov’s Victorious in Defeat, which is a long overdue reappraisal of the life of the Chinese leader who helped Sun Yat-sen bring revolution to China in the early 20th century, ruthlessly rose to the leadership of the Guomindang Party, defeated rival warlords in a struggle for power, served as America’s ally fighting Japan in World War II, lost to the communists in the civil war, and established a new government on the island of Taiwan that eventually became a thriving democracy and an economic dynamo.

Indeed, it is impossible to fully understand the current China-Taiwan crisis in the western Pacific without studying the life and times of Chiang Kai-shek. Born in 1887 in the village of Xikou in Zhejiang province, Chiang as a young student in Ningbo became familiar with the ideas of Sun Yat-sen--revolutionary ideas that would bring political change to the Middle Kingdom. Chiang studied in Japan and met with Sun in 1906, and later attended a military academy. He subsequently joined Sun’s Revolutionary Alliance and played a role in overthrowing the Qing monarchy.

The second decade of the 20th century was a decade of struggle within China, and Chiang eventually joined Sun’s new Guomindang Party. It was a leftist party, and Chiang initially viewed the world through communist/Bolshevik lenses. But in the 1920s, a struggle for power developed in China among the Guomindang, the newly founded Communist Party (not yet led by Mao), and other warlords. It was a ruthless and deadly struggle, and Chiang, writes Pantsov, used terror and any other political weapon necessary to achieve power.

Chiang’s goal, Pantsov writes, was to “make China, which had broken into pieces, powerful and strong,” but only under his leadership. And in December 1927, he gained an important partner in this effort when he married Song Meiling (later known as Madam Chiang Kai-shek), a beautiful and worldly member of what became an influential Chinese family. And Chiang was a consummate realist political leader who at times established working relations with both Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany.

The real threat to China, however, was Japan, a rising great power increasingly run by militarists who sought to create an Asian and Pacific empire. Pantsov describes in great detail Japan’s incursions and later invasions of China, which caused both Chiang and communist leaders to partially suspend their rivalry to fight the common enemy. Thus began what Pantsov characterizes as a “protracted war” between China and Japan—a brutal, unrelenting struggle which brought devastation to the Chinese people.

Pantsov rightly gives Chiang credit for his refusal to surrender to the Japanese juggernaut. Chiang led the fight against Japan on the Chinese mainland, while after Pearl Harbor the United States and Britain fought Japan in the Pacific and parts of the Asian mainland. Pantsov believes that Chiang does not get sufficient credit from historians for tying down so many Japanese divisions on the mainland so that the United States could successfully engage Japan in the Central and Southwest Pacific.

China bore the brunt of Japan’s war in Asia, suffering nearly 20 million dead. Pantsov praises Chiang for switching to guerrilla warfare in Japan’s rear. And while Mao’s communist forces also battled the Japanese, the communists used the war to establish better relations with the Soviets and to prepare for the postwar struggle against Chiang’s Nationalists.

After America’s entry into the war, Chiang dealt with a series of U.S. military advisors—some like General Albert Wedemeyer who was favorably disposed toward Chiang, and some like General Joseph Stilwell who grew to hate Chiang. President Franklin Roosevelt initially viewed Chiang as one of the leaders who would help police the world after the war, but Roosevelt’s State Department soured on Chiang, partly, Pantsov writes, because of the widespread corruption within the Nationalist leadership (though not Chiang himself), and partly because FDR’s State Department (and some in the American media) had pro-communist sympathies.

And this growing anti-Chiang position carried over into the Truman administration and impacted the outcome of China’s civil war. To be sure, Pantsov places primary responsibility for Chiang’s defeat in the civil war on Chiang, other Nationalist leaders, and Mao’s army (which was greatly aided by Stalin). But Pantsov also blames American statesmen for making “serious mistakes that made the situation worse.” And the biggest mistake, Pantsov writes, was America’s “adherence to the idea of universal democratization,” which played “into the hands of Stalin and the CCP, who cynically deceived the world, including many Chinese liberals, by the alluring concept of Mao’s New Democracy.” And America’s statesmen, Pantsov writes, “never acknowledged their mistakes openly,” but instead “blamed only Chiang.”

Chiang and the Nationalists fled the mainland to Taiwan, where they established an authoritarian regime that became a key American ally in the Cold War. Mao’s plan to invade Taiwan in 1950 was interrupted by the Korean War. President Truman sent the U.S. fleet to the Taiwan Strait, explaining that “The occupation of Formosa [Taiwan] by Communist forces would be a direct threat to the security of the Pacific area and to the United States forces . . .” Pantsov writes that the war saved Taiwan’s independence. Then twice in the 1950s, President Eisenhower threatened to use nuclear weapons to defend Taiwan from a communist invasion.

Pantsov notes that the health, literacy, and economic productivity of Taiwan’s citizens improved greatly under Chiang’s rule. And although he ruled as an autocrat, he “laid the social, economic, and cultural-ethical foundations of Taiwan for its current democracy.” It was Chiang, Pantsov writes, “who pointed the Taiwanese to the path that led to their political freedom.”

That political freedom is in danger today from the CCP that views Taiwan’s independence as the unfinished business of the Chinese civil war. And like the 1950s, the United States still views Taiwan as an important ally in its new Cold War with China. Whether Chiang Kai-shek’s important and beneficial legacy on Taiwan will survive is an open question.