Joseph Warren Stilwell

views updated Jun 11 2018

Joseph Warren Stilwell

Joseph Warren Stilwell (1883-1946) was the Army officer in charge of U.S. affairs in China during World War II.

Joseph Stilwell was born on March 19, 1883, at Palatka, Fla. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1914. During World War I he served with the IV Corps in combat intelligence, winning the Distinguished Service Medal.

In 1919 Stilwell was appointed to study Chinese at the University of California, Berkeley. The following year he sailed for the first of three tours of duty in China. After 1935 he served as military attaché to the Chinese government. Stilwell's work as a tactician and trainer impressed his superiors in Washington.

Following the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the U.S. War Department, to sustain and strengthen Chinese resistance to the Japanese invaders, ordered Stilwell to improve the Chinese army as chief of staff to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, take command of all United States forces in the China-Burma-India theater, and direct all Chinese forces in Burma (now Myanmar). In April 1942, however, the Japanese defeated Stilwell's forces in Burma and cut off the Burma Road, a Chinese supply line. When the road was finally reopened in 1945, it was named after Stilwell.

Known as "Vinegar Joe" because of his integrity, his refusal to ingratiate himself with others, and the demands he placed on those around him, Stilwell despised Chiang Kaishek and made no effort to conceal it. He recoiled at the administrative paralysis in the wartime Chinese capital. Three times, directly and indirectly, Chiang sought Stilwell's recall. In 1944 Stilwell was to command all Chinese forces, but Chiang managed through President Franklin Roosevelt to force Stilwell's removal from China. Stilwell warned the American government against the Chinese central government, placing more faith in the more efficient Chinese Communists at Yenan. At the time of his death at San Francisco, Calif., on Oct. 12, 1946, Stilwell commanded the 6th Army.

Further Reading

Of interest for its comments on men and events is Theodore White, ed., The Stilwell Papers (1948). The best book on Stilwell is Barbara W. Tuchman, Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45 (1970). Other important studies of Stilwell's wartime experiences in China are Charles F. Romanus and Riley Sunderland, Stilwell's Mission to China (1953) and Stilwell's Command Problems (1956). Books dealing with Stilwell's experiences in Burma are Jack Belden, Retreat with Stilwell (1943), and Fred Eldridge, Wrath in Burma: The Uncensored Story of General Stilwell and International Maneuvers in the Far East (1946). Claire Lee Chennault, Way of a Fighter: The Memoirs, edited by Robert Hotz (1949), contains observations on Stilwell's activities in China.

Additional Sources

The Stilwell papers, New York, N.Y.: Da Capo Press, 1991. □

Stilwell, Joseph

views updated Jun 08 2018

Stilwell, Joseph (1883–1946), U.S. general in World War II.Graduating from West Point in 1904, Stilwell's first assignment, to the Philippines, began a military career that would be closely associated with Asia, especially China. After service as an intelligence officer during World War I, Stilwell was sent to China—the first of several assignments that eventually included a stint as military attaché (1935–39), when he observed the Sino‐Japanese War.

Highly regarded by Gen. George C. Marshall, Stilwell, who was fluent in Chinese, was appointed U.S. commander of the China‐Burma‐India theater of operations in 1942. Although allotted minimal resources, Stilwell strived to encourage the Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai‐shek, to build an effective military force to counter Japanese advances in China and Burma. Stilwell's relationship with Chiang was strained, given the latter's unwillingness to reform the corrupt and poorly led Chinese armies. Nicknamed “Vinegar Joe” for his blunt manner, Stilwell proved unable to use Chinese troops to halt the 1942 conquest of northern Burma, which cut the only viable land link between China and India. Relying largely on Chinese forces trained by his American staff, he succeeded two years later in recapturing a large part of northern Burma and was promoted to lieutenant general. This campaign eventually paved the way for the reopening of the Burma Road in 1945.

Recalled by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in October 1944 at the behest of Chiang, Stilwell returned to the United States to resume his career in Washington, D.C., as commander of army ground forces. He was slated to command the Tenth Army for the planned invasion of Japan before the surrender of Tokyo in August 1945.


Barbara W. Tuchman , Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911–1945, 1970.
Eric Larrabee , Commander in Chief: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, His Lieutenants, and Their War, 1987.

G. Kurt Piehler