#Reviewing The Rise and Fall of an Officer Corps

The Rise and Fall of an Officer Corps: The Republic of China Military, 1942-1955. Eric Setzekorn. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018.

In Taiwan, June 6th, 1955, on the eleventh anniversary of the Allied landing on Normandy, one of the most decorated commanders of World War II was soon to fall from grace. As troops of the Republic of China (ROC) military got ready for a parade in Pingtung, its guest of honor, President Chiang Kai-shek, did not arrive at 0930 as scheduled. When he did show up, and having given an unusually short speech, the Kuomintang (KMT, or Nationalist) leader purportedly also appeared flustered. Two months later on 20th August, 1955, his Chief Military Advisor, General Sun Li-jen, (otherwise referred to as Sun Liren in hanyu pinyin) who had accompanied the Generalissimo at the parade was suddenly placed under house arrest after one of Sun’s former subordinates, Kuo Ting-liang, had admitted to working as a Communist spy under forced confession. This marked the beginning of the 33-year incarceration of one of Republic of China’s most well-known soldiers in modern Chinese history.[1]

Eric Setzekorn’s The Rise and Fall of An Officer Corps chronicles the period from 1942 to Sun’s downfall in 1955. It contextualizes the politicization-professionalization dynamic of the Republic of China’s officer corps by casting the famed graduate of the Virginia Military Institute as the champion of military modernization in China. Nicknamed “Rommel of the East,” Sun had made his name during the Battle of Yenangyaung against Japanese forces in the Burma Campaign and also fought against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the earlier phases of fighting in Manchuria before he was transferred away from the front in 1947.[2]

Given the political exigencies for a regime that eventually lost in its bitter struggle against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the professionalization of the Kuomintang’s forces was doomed to failure with its development as a military independent of party control pushed to the side. Indeed, Chiang’s political survival calculus and the extension of Nationalist rule on Taiwan were the sine qua non following his retreat to Taiwan. The loss of the Chinese Civil War to the Communists had after all been precipitated by the lack of political conviction within the Kuomintang ranks as evinced by mass defections as the tide of war began to turn against the Nationalist government.[3]

In his highly readable and insightful account, Setzekorn illustrates the debate between “maintaining single-party dominance” and “the aspirations of military officers to serve the nation,” taking the reader through the key events that shaped the Republic of China military system during the first half of the twentieth century. Divided into six chapters, with an introduction and an epilogue, the book unfolds chronologically with the author adopting a cultural approach to discuss the ebb and flow of changes in the Republic of China military.[4] However, his attempt at demarcating the various phases into distinct periods is somewhat unwieldy. In setting the scene leading up to the main topic, Setzekorn starts with how a technically-oriented military bureaucracy in the final years of Qing rule provided the basis for formal military training establishments, before dynastic rule was then replaced by the party-army governance under the nominal Kuomintang government.

The Republican China—then, still a semi-colonial country with weakly-defended borders—was undergoing civil strife and growing Japanese incursions. Beginning with its initial dalliance with Soviet military advice under the former Kuomintang leader, Sun Yat-sen, the Nationalist party-army would graduate from employing German officers on secondment, before requisitioning and receiving substantial American military expertise as it modelled itself on the U.S. armed forces. With the Second Sino-Japanese War and the subsequent American military intervention, the author then sets in motion his thesis about how professional soldiering in the Republican China underwent improvement as U.S. military aid arrived into the China theatre.

In addition to a chapter devoted to describing the U.S. military role in the evolution of the Republic of China  forces, Setzekorn succeeds in providing readers with an in-depth account about how U.S. foreign and security policymaking shaped the course of events in China. The author’s use of archival materials in a chapter detailing the “reshaping and redefinition of the U.S. military mission” is particularly enlightening, especially considering that the U.S. (epitomized by George C. Marshall) was concerned that the Civil War in China might grow into a wider conflict between itself and the former Soviet Union.[5] In the Generalissimo’s pursuit of the means of conducting modern scientific warfare by adopting “American…organization” as the basis for the Republic of China military, Setzekorn nevertheless criticizes the Kuomintang for neglecting how that could achieve the desired ends—i.e., how American organization, along with equipment, tactics and techniques might be utilised to overcome the Communist insurgency.[6] In sifting through a military publication of the era, Xiandai Junshi, the author discovers there was an “almost complete lack of discussion” among Republican China military officers about defeating the People’s Liberation Army.[7]

General George C. Marshall is greeted by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in Nanking, China, in 1946. (AP)

Apart from the minor matter regarding the quality of the editorial workparticularly the use of incorrect hanyu pinyin in a number of instancesthere is one argument that Setzekorn makes with which this reviewer would like to take issue. Sun Li-jenby virtue of his persona as someone outside the Whampoa faction associated with Chiang Kai-shek and his status as an aloof Kuomintang supporterwas “more indicative of the rank-and-file officers than many other party-appointed senior commanders.”[8] That argument is useful in rekindling interest in the civil-military dynamics of the Kuomintang regime spanning the periods of the Civil War (1927–1949) and in between, the War of Resistance against Japan (1937–1945)the latter in which the Nationalist government was responsible for the heavy fighting and endured the vast majority of casualties. While there is no doubting Sun’s significant contributions to developing Republican China military professionalism, especially after he had been withdrawn from the frontline, the question is how representative he and his cohort of U.S.-trained officers are of the larger institution. For example, based on a census compiled in 1947, the proportion of Republican China Army officers who received their training abroad made up only 8.67% of the total number of officers.[9] Given the high percentage of personnel trained at the Whampoa Academy (35.13%) and local Chinese universities (36.56%), one cannot be too sure about the assertion that between 1947 to 1955, “several hundred officers” who like Sun had completed their education at U.S. military schools “were able to complete the transformation of the Republic of China Army into a thoroughly American-style force.”[10] It is well-documented that Chiang was known for his proclivity to favor political loyalty over military effectiveness, with the implication that some of the commanders he had appointed might not have been the best candidates at promoting professional military competencies.[11]

Likewise, international and domestic political machinations of the time also had a hand in determining developments. While Sun certainly was loyal to his political master, the latter’s perception that Washington appeared to be cultivating Sun (supposedly, with the intent of overthrowing Chiang) turned the war hero into Chiang’s potential rival. At the same time Sun was made commander-in-chief of the Republic of China Army, the Generalissimo designated his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, to lead its political department to perpetuate Kuomintang ideology throughout the system. This effectively pitted Sun against the younger Chiang. While there is no indication there was any personal enmity between the two, it is well-known Sun was opposed to the politicisation of the troops.[12] In particular, Sun is noted to have expressed his dissatisfaction over the dearth of due diligence on the part of inadequately trained political work personnel who were too eager to pass judgment. By Sun’s reckoning, this adversely affected the unity and morale of the soldiers. Whereas Sun’s friendly relations with the U.S. politico-military establishment had been useful to the Generalissimo previously, the outbreak of war on the Korean Peninsula in 1950 and the subsequent signing of the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty on 2nd December, 1954 (but effective on 3rd March the following year) meant that at the time of his arrest in 1955, Sun’s political capital had all but expended.

These remarks in no way serve to detract from the excellent scholarship the book represents. In elegant prose, Setzekorn offers well-reasoned analysis and empowers the reader to navigate through the course of events until Taiwan’s political opening-up in the concluding chapter. More elucidation of the probable linkages between the 12 years that Chiang Ching-kuo had spent under Leninist tutelage in the Soviet Union and the effects that might have had on his work in the Republic of China military would certainly have made Rise and Fall a more balanced account. Nevertheless, this work provides us with an important reminder of a key phase of China’s modern history that is increasingly fading from the public consciousness. With Taipei’s economic and diplomatic fortunes having gone south (vis-à-vis Beijing’s) in recent decadescoupled with the rising stature of the Chinese armed forcesthe story of the original party-army that ruled China proper, indubitably, has been neglected by both popular media and academe alike. In this present context, The Rise and Fall of An Officer Corps is a timely contribution to our understanding of modern China and its military history.

James Char is an Associate Research Fellow with the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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Header Image: Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-shek in 1955 (Photofest)


[1] See “Taiwan in Time: The ‘framed’ general,” Taipei Times, available at: http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/feat/archives/2017/11/12/2003682105l; and “Document: Report by the Commission of Enquiry on the Case of General Sun Li-jen Relative to the Communist Agent Kuo Ting-liang,” Taiwan Review, 1 November 1955, available at: https://taiwantoday.tw/news.php?post=7908&unit=4,4,29,29,31,31,45&unitname=Taiwan-Review&postname=Document%3A-Report-by-the-Commission-of-Enquiry-on-the-Case-of-General-Sun-Li-jen-Relative-to-the-Communist-Agent-Kuo-Ting-liang.

[2] Eric Setzekorn, The Rise and Fall of an Officer Corps: The Republic of China Military, 1942-1955 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018), 91-92.

[3] Lloyd E. Eastman, “Who Lost China? Chiang Kai-shek Testifies,” The China Quarterly, No. 88 (Dec., 1981), pp. 658-668.

[4] Setzekorn, The Rise and Fall of an Officer Corps, 6-7.

[5] Setzekorn, The Rise and Fall of an Officer Corps, 89.

[6] Ibid. 85.

[7] Ibid., 102.

[8] Ibid., 14.

[9] Chang, Jui-te, “Kangzhan shiqi de Guo jun renshi” (ROC Military Personnel during the Second Sino-Japanese War), Academia Sinica Institute of Modern History Monograph No. 68, Taipei, ROC: Academia Sinica, June 1993, p.6.

[10] Ibid.

[11] During the Battle of Shanghai, for instance, Chiang had displayed a clear preference towards equipping those divisions loyal to him, meaning that China's ground forces were of uneven quality. See Peter Harmsen (2013). Stalingrad on the Yangtze. Philadelphia: Casemate Publishers.

[12] Jay Taylor (2000). The Generalissimo's Son: Chiang Ching-kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press. pp.195.