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Despite strained relations, U.S. and China still pay tribute to Gen. Joseph Stilwell

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

China-U.S. ties are really bad. There's friction over everything from trade to national security. But during World War II, the U.S. and China were allies, and both countries are still paying tribute to an American who played a crucial role in that conflict. NPR's John Ruwitch explains why.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: There's a museum on a hill in the Chinese city of Chongqing dedicated to the American General Joseph Stilwell. Known as Vinegar Joe, for his harsh personality, Stilwell was the U.S. commander of the China Burma India Theater in World War II. The U.S. ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, paid the site a visit over the summer. He later told NPR why and why he's made a point of visiting other places in China that harken back to that era.

NICHOLAS BURNS: We're evoking a past when the Chinese and American people were in common cause. Those days are behind us, but we still have to work together as two countries and two peoples on climate change, and we have to live in peace together.

RUWITCH: Stilwell learned Chinese as a young officer and served as a military attache in Beijing in the late 1930s. After Pearl Harbor, he was sent back to Asia to help fight Japan in China, as well as in Burma, which served as a conduit for arms and aid. His exploits were legendary. After retreating to India from Burma by foot in 1942, he spoke with conviction in this film about the campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSEPH STILWELL: I claim we got a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma, and it's humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, go back and retake the place.

RUWITCH: And he did. Most of the troops he commanded were Chinese, and Stilwell earned a reputation for looking out for them. William Kirby is a historian of modern China at Harvard University.

WILLIAM KIRBY: It sounds simple-minded when one says that, oh, he's a strong admirer of the Chinese people. That sounds very propagandistic, but it's actually true in his case, from everything that he wrote and a strong admirer of the fighting spirit of Chinese soldiers.

RUWITCH: When he wasn't in the field, he was regularly in Chongqing, China's wartime capital. There he worked closely with nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, someone for whom he had famously less admiration. At one point, Stilwell convinced President Roosevelt to give him unrestricted command of all Chinese forces. Roosevelt wrote a letter to Chiang, and Stilwell hand-delivered it.

KIRBY: And he writes in his diary that when he went to give that letter, here's - he said, quote, "I handled this bundle of paprika to the peanut" - that's what he called Chiang Kai-shek - "and then sank back with a sigh. The harpoon hit the little bugger right in the solar plexus and went right through him."

RUWITCH: At another point in the diary, he described having the urge to bite a radiator after dealing with Chiang. Historians say Stilwell's disdain for the nationalist leader may be part of the reason the Communist Party that now runs China still celebrates the American general. The Communists swept to power in 1949 after defeating the nationalists, who fled to Taiwan. But Stilwell is useful in other ways for Beijing today. Last month, the refurbished Stilwell Museum was reopened to mark the 140th anniversary of his birth. Stilwell's great-granddaughter Nancy Millward was there for the celebration.

NANCY MILLWARD: I hope this sort of inspires people to look at history, the good things that happened during a very awful time, during World War II, and just remember that that's possible. We can get back to being good allies and good friends and learn from each other's cultures.

RUWITCH: Chinese leader Xi Jinping echoed that sentiment in a letter in August to Millward's father, Stilwell's grandson. In it, he called for stronger people-to-people relations. Former U.S. diplomat Robert Daly, now with the Wilson Center think tank, says that's something both sides should be able to agree on.

ROBERT DALY: We're at a phase in the relationship right now where Americans and Chinese are leaders dealing with each other. We both want to bite radiators. So the ideal of people-to-people interactions is let's get some non-radiator-biters involved with each other.

RUWITCH: And perhaps stabilize the relationship a bit, even if another U.S.-China alliance seems impossible for now.

John Ruwitch, NPR News, Chongqing, China.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE HIT CO.'S "THE BRADY BUNCH (INSTRUMENTAL VERSION)" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.

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