Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
Teaser Image

China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater

General geographic reference for the immersion of East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia in the war against Japan. China-Burma-India (CBI) also refers to an Allied military command structure in the Pacific Theater that was established early in the war. At the December 1941 arcadia Conference in Quebec, British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to set up the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDA) under General Sir Archibald Wavell in India. Separate from but nominally equal to the ABDA was the China Theater under Generalissimo Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) as supreme commander, in recognition of China's role in fighting Japan since at least the start of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937. Lieutenant General Joseph Stilwell, who had more experience in China than any other senior U.S. Army officer and spoke Chinese fluently, became the senior Allied officer in the region. His two titles were "commanding general of the United States Army Forces in the Chinese Theater of Operations, Burma, and India" and "chief of staff to the Supreme Commander of the Chinese Theater" (Jiang Jieshi). The chain of command was confusing because American forces in China came under the authority of Wavell's ABDA Command. Wavell also commanded forces in Burma, whereas Stilwell was to have direct command of Chinese forces committed to Burma (initially, three armies of up to 100,000 men). From the beginning, Stilwell and Jiang did not get along, and Stilwell was repeatedly handicapped by Jiang's interference in military matters.

In February, following the loss of most of the Netherlands East Indies, the ABDA Command was done away with. From that point forward, the Pacific became an American responsibility, with the British assuming authority from Singapore to Suez. Jiang continued to control the China Theater, and Wavell, headquartered in India, had authority over India and Burma. At the same time, Stilwell formed a new headquarters, the American Armed Forces: China, Burma, and India. The command included the small prewar U.S. military advisory group and Major General Claire Chennault's American Volunteer Group (AVG, known as the Flying Tigers), later a part of Tenth Army Air Force.

This command structure continued until the August 1943 Quebec Conference, when Churchill and Roosevelt agreed on the establishment of the more integrated South-East Asia Command (SEAC), with British Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten as commander and Stilwell as his deputy. Operations in Burma were separated from those in India, now under command of General Claude Auchinleck, commander in chief there since June 1943.

Designed to improve Allied military operations in the region, the new command structure did not achieve that end. Conflicts and different goals remained, with Jiang being the chief problem in Allied cooperation. But the British and Americans also had different priorities. The British were mainly concerned with the defense of India and preventing the Japanese military from exerting an influence on growing Indian nationalism. London saw defeating the Japanese in Burma as the chief means to bring about that end, rather than as a means to channel supplies to China. British military efforts in Burma would thus ebb and flow. The United States was primarily interested in building up China's military strength, and Burma would be a chief route for these supplies to reach China; indeed, President Roosevelt saw China taking its rightful place as a major world power at war's end. U.S. military planners also saw China as a potential location for heavy bombers to be used in the strategic bombing of Japan. These conflicting views were exacerbated by the personalities involved. Stilwell continued to feud with Jiang, and he also held that the British were more interested in defending their Asian empire than in fighting Japan. Stilwell wanted to recover Burma, and he worked hard to improve the fighting ability of those Chinese army units he could influence. The only way to get substantial military heavy equipment to China—which was essential if its fighting ability was to improve dramatically—was by way of Burma, and so construction of the so-called Ledo Road there became imperative. In the meantime, the United States undertook a massive logistical air supply operation to China from bases in India over "the Hump" of the Himalaya Mountains, the highest in the world. The ubiquitous C-47 (DC-3) aircraft was the workhorse for much of this campaign.

Construction of the 478-mile-long Ledo Road to connect the old Burma Road from Ledo, India, to Bhama, Burma, took 25 months. The new road ran through jungles, over mountains, and across 10 rivers. U.S. Army Brigadier General Lewis A. Pick had charge of this vast project, one of the major engineering accomplishments of the war.

Meanwhile, Jiang refused to yield operational command of the growing Chinese military establishment to General Stilwell. Jiang saw the Chinese forces as much as a means to defeat the Communists in China after the war as to destroy the Japanese forces in the current conflict. Stilwell fervently believed that, properly trained and equipped, Chinese soldiers could be the equal of any in the world, but all of his efforts to eradicate corruption, weed out ineffective leaders, and end political interference in the Chinese military were rebuffed by Jiang. The Chinese Nationalist leader repeatedly promised reforms but delivered only sufficient compliance to keep up the flow of U.S. military aid.

General Chennault and airpower advocates believed that Japan might be bombed into submission from bases in eastern China. Stilwell dismissed such views and pointed out that the Japanese could simply carry out an offensive to wipe out the bases. Nonetheless, the first production B-29 Superfortresses were sent to China from India, and an ambitious base-construction program was undertaken. Although a few air bombing missions were carried out, the Japanese responded by mounting a great ground offensive, the ichi-go Campaign, in mid-1944, during which all the bases were captured without significant Chinese ground resistance. The B-29s were shifted from CBI to the Marianas in the Central Pacific. Roosevelt now applied heavy pressure on Jiang to carry out the reforms advocated by Stilwell and place an American general, preferably Stilwell, in command of the Chinese army. Frustrated by its inability to turn China into a major theater of war, the United States increasingly used its massive naval strength to invest in the highly productive "leap-frogging" strategy of securing important islands as stepping stones toward Japan across the Central Pacific. As a result, China was more and more marginalized and downgraded to a minor theater of war, chiefly important for its role in tying down a million Japanese troops.

Stilwell, now at wit's end, reached an impasse with Jiang and was recalled to Washington in October 1944. He was replaced by U.S. Army Major General Albert Wedemeyer, a far more tractable individual bent on getting along with Jiang. The demands for reforms in the Chinese military came to an end. In effect, CBI ended in October 1944 when it was divided into two spheres of command, India-Burma and China. Stilwell's deputy, General Daniel L. Sultan, became the commander of U.S. forces in India-Burma and directed the Allied military effort in northern Burma.

The CBI featured unique air, guerrilla, and logistical operations. Among innovative military and air tactics originating in the CBI was the establishment of Long-Range Penetration Groups, more popularly known as Wingate's Chindits and Merrill's Maurauders. Utilizing air assets, British and U.S. commanders projected ground troops far behind Japanese lines, their communication and supply provided by air. Here and elsewhere, guerrilla operations were developed and intelligence and insurgency operations carried out. William Donovan and the Office of Strategic Services were active in the theater.

Finally, the CBI was a major scene of postwar confrontation. Early in the war, Japan had conquered and overrun much of China and most of the European and U.S. colonies in the Pacific. The arrival of Japanese forces in Indochina was a great blow to French influence, and the defeat of the British at Singapore had an even more powerful impact on British prestige. President Roosevelt envisioned the end of colonization after the war, but with the arrival of the Soviet threat, new U.S. President Harry S Truman was less sympathetic. Although the Philippines, India, Burma, and some other states gained independence just after the war, the process of decolonization was actually delayed in some areas, resulting in costly wars in the Netherlands East Indies and French Indochina. As for China, American efforts by Roosevelt's inept ambassador to China, Patrick J. Hurley, to mediate between the Chinese Nationalists and Communists came to naught; that vast country soon disintegrated into civil war. The United States, which had already committed to Jiang, found itself unable to adopt a neutral stance and paid the price in influence when the civil war ended in a Communist victory in 1949.

Eugene L. Rasor and Spencer C. Tucker

Further Reading
Ienaga, Saburo. The Pacific War: World War II and the Japanese, 1931–1945. Oxford: Blackwell, 1968.; Levine, Alan J. The Pacific War: Japan versus the Allies. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995.; Rasor, Eugene L. The China-Burma-India Campaign, 1931–1949: Historiography and Annotated Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.; Romanus, Charles P., and Riley Sunderland. United States Army in World War II: China-Burma-India Theater. 3 vols. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1952–1958.; Schaller, Michael. The U.S. Crusade in China, 1938–1945. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.; Spector, Ronald H. Eagle against the Sun: The American War with Japan. New York: Vintage Books, 1985.; Thorne, Christopher G. The Approach of War, 1938–1939. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1967.; Thorne, Christopher G. Allies of a Kind: The United States, Britain, and the War against Japan, 1941–1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.; Thorne, Christopher G. The Issue of War: States, Societies, and the Far Eastern Conflict of 1941–1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.; Tuchman, Barbara. Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911–1945. New York: Macmillan, 1970.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  About the Author/Editor
  Documents Prior to 1938
  1939 Documents
  1940 Documents
  1941 Documents
  1942 Documents
  1943 Documents
  1944 Documents
  1945 Documents
ABC-cLIO Footer