WASHINGTON -- Attempting to rise above our "inspirational" political conventions last weekend, I gratefully picked up a book by the brilliant Barbara Tuchman that I had not read -- "Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45."
This saga would surely carry me away from the increasingly oppressive policy questions of today, from the talk about decline and indecision among our ruling classes. Also, it is a big book, published in 1970; that probably meant that no intellectual smart-aleck friend of mine would argue with me about it.
I settled in.
I leafed through, reading sections I liked about the fabled American Gen. Joseph Stilwell. Not surprisingly, Tuchman won her second Pulitzer Prize for this book. Stilwell spoke Chinese and knew that torn "nation" as no other American. They didn't call him "Vinegar Joe" for nothing; he had an acid wit and a bitingly realistic, analytical mind. He was one of the main American players in China following its revolution of 1911 to his own death in 1946 before the victory of the Chinese communists in 1948.
And then I settled out.
It did not take me long to realize I was, in many ways, reading an early version of what is happening today. And I dwelled on Tuchman's concluding words, which sum up the sad and wistful decades-long American experience with China (emphasis mine):
"Stilwell's mission was America's supreme try in China. He made the maximum effort because his temperament permitted no less; he never slackened and he never gave up. Yet the mission failed in its ultimate purpose because the goal was unachievable.
"The impulse was not Chinese. Combat efficiency and the offensive spirit, like the Christianity and democracy offered by missionaries and foreign advisers, were not indigenous demands of the society and culture to which they were brought. Even the Yellow River Road that Stilwell built in 1921 had disappeared 12 years later. China was a problem for which there was no American solution.
"The American effort to sustain the status quo could not supply an outworn government with strength and stability or popular support. It could not hold up a husk nor long delay the cyclical passing of the mandate of heaven. In the end, China went her own way, as if the Americans had never come."
I sat for a time and just thought about that ending. Then, impatient for context, I switched on the news. Over the same weeks our political conventions were held, attacks on the Shiite government in Iraq, our formation, intensified -- up to 94 dead last weekend alone. In Afghanistan, murders by Afghan recruits against our own troops had become so alarming that training was stopped in a kind of stupefaction.
Meanwhile, in Pakistan, our great "ally" in the Near East, every American diplomat who returned from analyzing the situation reported that it was simply hopeless -- Pak intelligence was supporting the very Taliban that we were fighting.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, on his recent trip to the Middle East, strongly suggested he would support striking Iran's nuclear installations, with or without Israel, with God only knows what outcome, and probably making moves on the mad chess game of Syria as well. President Barack Obama has at least moved our troops largely out of Iraq, and was obviously getting all holy hell tired of the "ungrateful" Afghans, who turned political color even before the seasons changed.
At this point, I began to think of how wise Barbara Tuchman was. Our intervention in China, supporting the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek against the Communists, was after all the primary American international cause, outside of all-out war, of the first half of the 20th century.
World War II was, of course, a mammoth, if costly, success. But we were able to make it so because we won supremely. That meant we could rebuild Germany in our image; that meant a brilliant, if touchy, commander like Gen. Douglas MacArthur could place himself in the position of the emperor and transform the entirety of military Japan.
But we never had that power in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Salvador, Nicaragua, Lebanon, Somalia, and, yes, even current Iraq and Afghanistan. We are now in the process of leaving those last two in indeterminate chaos and in existential states of war. The question now is: never again or ever again?
The answer is embedded in Tuchman's warnings of 40-some years ago. Our goals were "unachievable" -- they couldn't happen. There was never any "American solution" to China's problems because we never heard the background whispering of their indigenous demands. And in the end -- how sad -- it was "as if the Americans had never come."