- - Wednesday, September 6, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A FEW PLANES FOR CHINA: THE BIRTH OF THE FLYING TIGERS

By Eugenie Buchan

ForeEdge Books, $35, 280 pages

The Flying Tigers. Say it out loud and the next words of out your mouth will probably be “John Wayne.” One of the staples of late-night television movies remains the 1942 epic that starred Mr. Wayne playing a character modeled on that equally rugged American fighter, Gen. Claire Chennault. That film and the shelf of books published since then have insured that the legend of the Tigers — formally known as the American Volunteer Group (AVG) is firmly fixed in our memories.

Author Eugenie Buchan, a Washington historian who now plies her craft in Britain, has meticulously turned upside down the fable of that doughty band of Yank fighter pilots known as the Flying Tigers who early in World War II challenged the Japanese air assault on China.

In so doing she has challenged orthodox World War II history and forces us to reconsider the broader story of just how America got entangled in the affairs of the corrupt, incompetent regime of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. Those ties morphed into a symbiotic relationship that burdens us even today with defending that ally in freedom known as the Republic of China, aka Taiwan.

What Ms. Buchan argues is that Chennault fashioned the myth that it was he who successfully lobbied President Franklin Roosevelt into providing the roughly 300 “volunteer” U.S. Air Corps and Navy fighter pilots and the requisite P-40 Tomahawk planes to Chiang. He then claimed that he trained them and led them as they sent the dastardly Zero planes down in satisfying flames.

Ms. Buchan’s research in both American and British archives leads to her assertion that Chennault as a minor character; that FDR was not the driving force behind the formation of the AVG, but rather it was Winston Churchill who secured Roosevelt’s promise to help defend Britain’s Asian empire that led to one of our first ventures into covert action.

This is a multilayered story but Ms. Buchan has an easy narrative style and command of the facts she has uncovered. It is part family memoir, part detective yarn and an exercise in meticulous archival research. In the end, it is this latter that makes the book required reading for Asia and war history fans. Much of the tale unearthed has been available but ignored by several generations of older authorities.

Ms. Buchan’s journey begins in 2006 when she examines a paper bag of onion-skin copies of correspondence dated between 1937 and 1942 involving her maternal grandfather and a scheme to provide a nominally privately-sourced force of American pilots and the latest fighter planes to shore up the tottering air defenses of the Republic of China.

Bruce Gardner Leighton had been a World War I Navy pilot who in the early inter-war years had sold planes for the Curtis-Wright firm in the Balkans. In 1937 he had become a sales representative for a now-forgotten plane maker, the Intercontinent Corp.

Intercontinent’s notion was to build a factory in Nationalist territory that could provide the hardware not only for China but also the nearby vulnerable nations of Burma and India. Chiang’s Nationalist air force was riddled with corruption and needed both planes and experienced personnel if it was to check Japanese air superiority,

The obstacles were many and formidable. The tangled finances of the Nationalist government would need substantial foreign subsidy to pay for whatever aircraft they ended up using. An obvious source, Great Britain was chary of any direct aid that might provoke Japanese reprisals.

In the five years leading up to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt walked a shaky tightrope. He faced implacable isolationist sentiment among the same congressional majority that made his New Deal domestic programs possible.

As Germany’s series of aggressive conquests gathered speed, FDR agreed with Churchill and any war against fascism would have to concentrate on saving Western Europe first and foremost. To bolster Britain’s lonely battle once that part of the war began, Roosevelt promised direct American aid should the Japanese threaten the British Empire’s Asian lynchpin defenses at Singapore.

Roosevelt also had become personally invested in a postwar vision of four major power policemen to enforce world peace — the United States, first among equals, but including Britain (but not France), the Soviet Union and, to balance the ticket, Chiang’s China. The bulk of Ms. Buchan’s tale is a tense back-and-forth drama as China’s formidable lobby in Washington (including Chennault), Leighton and the other Intercontinent officials and a skeptical U.S. military hierarchy dithered well into 1941 about creating a freelance air force for China.

Yet the legend was born. Between December 1941 and its disbandment in June 1942, the tiny (often fewer than 40 working aircraft) Flying Tigers with their shark-teeth and leaping tiger cub logo did destroy more than 300 Japanese aircraft and cause the diversion of Japanese resources that enabled Chiang to hang on. From the beginning — the John Wayne portrayal of Chennault in the 1942 “Flying Tigers” movie — a flood of books and articles bolstered the image of Nationalist China as the essential bulwark for American security in Asia.

Debunking that myth, plus her well-written narrative of the AVG’s origins makes Ms. Buchan’s book an essential case study of how American foreign policy often goes so wrong.

• James Srodes’ latest book, “Spies in Palestine,” was published earlier this year.


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