The Point of this book

Does it matter to set the record straight about the origins of the Flying Tigers? Yes. This book makes sense of the group’s pre-war origins in terms of international relations and the strategic priorities of the United States, Britain and China. It restores British participation to its rightful place in a logical account of how the AVG came about and what it was for.

Before Pearl Harbor the Flying Tigers became the backbone of Sino-British military cooperation. From February 1941 onwards, the British consistently believed in the AVG, unlike their US and Chinese counterparts. In November 1941 when Roosevelt and US Army officials had lost all confidence in the group, Winston Churchill personally ordered his staff to get resources to “Chennault’s party” in Burma as soon as possible.

In consultation with their Chinese counterparts, British officials defined the group’s strategic purpose: they arranged for the AVG and RAF to coordinate their actions in order to protect Burma and Yunnan once the Japanese had attacked the British Empire.

After Pearl Harbor, when the British lost Burma and their grip over the China-Burma-India theatre, no-one cared what they had achieved with China before US entry into the war. Instead, the story of the Flying Tigers was manipulated for the sake of US wartime propaganda and political expediency. Journalists and publicists for the AVG found it politic to emphasize the willingness of Roosevelt to help Chiang well before the Japanese forced him to do so. In his post-war memoir, Chennault as well as his kith and kin perpetuated the myth that in April 1941 President Roosevelt “blessed” Chennault’s plan to inject a small, well-trained air force into China to fight the enemy even if the Japanese had not yet declared war on the United States. As A Few Planes for China reveals, nothing could have been further from the truth.

In more recent years popular historians have hardly deviated from the storyline laid down by Chennault and his admirers in the post-war era. Underpinning this hero’s tale is a political message about the loss of China. Chennault is regarded as the lone airpower crusader who in the dark days after Pearl Harbor saved China with his volunteer group and would have saved China from the Communists if only the US government had endorsed all his strategic ideas. The Flying Tigers are cast as his mascot and a symbol of American friendship for Nationalist China which the Truman Administration betrayed when it withdrew support from Chiang kai-shek and allowed the Chinese Communists to take control of the “Middle Kingdom.”

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