The Legacy of Chiang Kai-Shek across the Taiwan Strait

The Legacy of Chiang Kai-Shek across the Taiwan Strait

The Legacy of Chiang Kai-Shek across the Taiwan Strait

April 5 marked the 42nd anniversary of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s death. The people of Taiwan are now trying to reconcile with a period in their history spanning over a quarter century under which Chiang and the Kuomintang (KMT) defined the island internationally, while ruling its people absolutely through martial law, imprisonment, executions, and cooperation with criminal gangs. How do they make sense of that period without misrepresenting history or betraying their emotions?

Let us begin not on Taiwan but in China, where Chiang was the unquestioned wartime leader. Why? Because he was the only politician that the Chinese people trusted would never ever surrender to the Japanese. As we know from his diary comments about his only child, Chiang Ching-kuo, he believed that country came even before family.[1] Under his leadership, one hundred Kuomintang divisions with another one hundred patriotic but “associated” divisions, fought the Japanese to a standstill, in eight years of war, which the Japanese had expected would be three months at most.

Before 1989, an informal group of PLA generals gathered—no doubt over baijiu (白酒), the traditional Chinese grain alcohol—to discuss whether Mao or Chiang was a better general. The consensus: Chiang. Chiang had an instinct for timing and identifying the jugular.[2] It worked brilliantly in the Northern Expedition. Had China possessed a navy capable of stopping Japan’s reinforcements at Hangzhou it could have worked at Shanghai too. Instead, the “lost battalion” in the egg warehouses stopped the Japanese until China’s main forces were safely withdrawn.[3] It would also have worked in 1946, had not General George Marshall ordered Chiang to stop, as his blitzkrieg was driving the CCP over the Sungari toward Russia. That order divided the Chinese army, putting the best forces in Manchuria, from which they could have no effect. That, I increasingly believe, was the ballgame.

Chiang feinted to Sichuan, drawing the CCP after him, and then escaped to Taiwan, which he had long been preparing.[4] This is another manifestation of his strongest quality: unwillingness to surrender. Yet, the Taiwanese and the conscripted KMT troops, sent away from home and their families for the rest of their lives, were two very different groups of people. Chiang and his generals lied and behaved duplicitously, in a way that is as shocking today as it was then, firing on their own people and killing thousands if not more.  The 2-28 incident and subsequent campaigns, not to mention the killing and arrests that went on for over three decades, were a defining shock for the Taiwanese.

The 2-28 incident poisoned ethnic relations and continues to do so today even though many of the participants are gone. Taiwan is now a democracy, rated ahead of the United States by Freedom House, in its latest global ranking. An entirely new generation, born after 1948, is in charge. But what to do with the anger, which only begets anger as more becomes known?

The impulse, of course, is to negate the whole KMT period; to somehow erase it. As a historian, though, I would affirm strongly that history cannot be erased. In the USSR almost all the Lenin statues are stored in a museum on the edge of Moscow with all sorts of other curious Communist artifacts. But a few remain—intentionally. In front of the KGB headquarters where one “Iron Feliks” Dzershinsky sat, arms raised (and regularly painted red to the elbows by dissident Muscovites), there is now a small memorial to the millions killed  by the KGB. Russia is of course not remotely a democracy, but they face similar dilemmas dealing with the Communist period.

First, history should not be erased. I was very impressed at the historical preservation of works of the Chiang era in Matsu (馬祖). It is an island-wide museum, almost unintelligible to the rising generation, but of great importance. It will gradually and naturally be reduced over time, but like it or not, Chiang and his son were the key figures in the making of today’s Taiwan.

Second, recall that on January 12, 1950, at his famous National Press Club conference, Secretary of State Dean Acheson explicitly excluded South Korea from the United States’ Asian defense perimeter. That, along with some other things, got us the Korean War. Less often recalled is that Acheson also excluded Taiwan. The US government’s operating consensus was that the People’s Republic of China (PRC), having conquered 3.7 million miles of China, would soon make short work of Taiwan’s not quite 14,000 square miles. No one cared. Mao was glorified; Taiwan or Formosa was unknown. In scholarship, Chiang was uniformly excoriated. No serious biography existed until Jay Taylor did the job with The Generalissimo in 2011.

Third, the foreign policy consensus in the United States was absolutely anti-Chiang. In the late 1970s John K. Fairbank, told me that without the skilled people who came with Chiang Kai-shek they would have been finished. A grain of truth lies here: Taiwan today is not a forgotten province of the PRC because for one reason: Chiang Kai-shek. His mainland troops crushed Mao at Guningtou (古寧頭) in 1949. That gave Mao second thoughts. Chiang’s network in the “Old” China Lobby made certain the United States supported him. This fact washes away none of the evil he perpetrated, but nonetheless must never be forgotten.

As for China today, the intellectuals there know that the KMT and its allies halted the Japanese while Mao chased Jiang Qing around the table in Yan’an. A wave of new publications demonstrates this fact. What is more, soon we are likely to have the explosive information that after 1940 Mao used 1,000 agents to contact the Japanese, selling secret Chinese war plans (he was in the United Front) to them for money.[5] There is no question that in China, Chiang’s reputation is being re-evaluated in a positive way. In Taiwan, by contrast, as more becomes known in this free country, Chiang’s crimes have become the focus. However, just how Taiwan came to be independent and remain so is not examined closely enough.

Now, the task of thoughtful Taiwanese—who have already created a new country, forging a new identity, and a new present—is to do the hard intellectual work of reconciling faithfully with its past. It should above all be comprehensive and totally accurate: no fantasies, no impossible counter-factuals, no dreams. It must be balanced and realistic. Finally, it must soothe the wounds with an honest acknowledgement of the truth, which is the only balm.

The wounds will heal gradually with time. Indeed, they are healing now. The legacy of the Chiang family and their genuine contributions to modern Taiwan must be borne in mind.  Certainly much can be pruned—but not all. So, too, the anger of the brave Taiwanese who opposed them must be remembered, as well as those within the United States and in China, who, in 1979, were convinced they had destroyed Taiwan forever.

The main point: In 1950 only two choices existed for Taiwan: Mao or Chiang? An important legacy of Chiang Kai-shek is that he spared Taiwan the horrors of Mao’s rule. In spite of KMT dictatorship and crimes, the descendants of Chiang and the brave Taiwanese have created a flourishing modern democracy. Reconciling these two phases demands absolute honesty and fairness, not to mention a fair dose of human and historical

[1] Jay Taylor, The Generalissimo’s Son (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Belknap Press, 2000), 74.
[2] Taken from author’s personal talks, while visiting the PRC.
[3] Hsu Long-hsuen and Chiang Ming-kai, History of the Sino-Japanese War (Taipei: Chung Wu, 1972), 209; author’s visits to site and egg warehouses.
[4] Taylor, The Generalissimo’s Son, 184-185
[5] Chinese books now document many battles. On Mao’s collaboration see Homare Endo (遠藤 譽), 毛澤東勾結日本的真相 (Tokyo: Mirror Books), 2016. Endo’s is a commercial book. A definitive and fully sourced English academic edition is in near final manuscript and will be published as soon as possible. Professor Endo, who grew up in postwar China, is a respected mainstream scholar and has regularly been a visiting fellow at Chinese institutions. Some CCP officials, with knowledge of these events, have read the Chinese book cited and confirmed her findings.