Sunday, February 15, 2015

What We're Reading: New History

China 1945: Mao’s Revolution and
American’s Fateful Choice,
by Richard Bernstein


This is a book about the origins of the troubled relationship between China and the United States that has lasted for a generation. It would probably be of limited interest, and may not even have been written, if China had remained a chaotic and struggling third-world power. But that is not what happened, and we are all keenly aware these days that China is on a course of ascendency that will make it one of the two major powers in the world and, for both strategic and ideological reasons, perhaps America’s greatest rival. We need to develop a greater understanding of China if we are to manage that relationship 
successfully while avoiding future conflict, and this timely book, which looks at what happened between the United States and the China in 1945, seems an important place to begin. 

September 1945. Publisher Henry Luce
of Time Magazine was a fervent champion
of Chiang Kai-shek, who appeared
often on the cover of Luce publications.
Michael Dobbs’s Six Months in 1945: FDR, Stalin, Churchill, Truman, and the Birth of the Modern World (previously reviewed here), along with Bernstein’s account, both remind us that the seemingly slow and cumulative course of history is sometimes punctuated by major events that occur in a short span of time, events that can have repercussions which reframe the world as we know it, and last for a generation or more. You could make a modern history career just by studying the events of 1945. The prosecution of the Second World War itself seems in a way logical. The necessary steps were, if not fully controllable, at least known. In contrast, it is hard to see how anyone could have fully anticipated or effectively managed the tremendous forces unleashed by the Allied victory. Too much happened on too many fronts in too short a period. And yet the argument has gone on for years that Britain and America could somehow have changed the outcome of events in Eastern Europe, or in the case of China; that a lack of resolve caused the United States to somehow “lose” China, an event that some argue lead subsequently to the wars in Korea and Vietnam.


U.S. Envoy Patrick Hurley flanked by Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai
at the airport at the Communist stronghold of Yenan in 1945.
The colorful Hurley got off his plane in Yenan and greeted
the startled Communist leaders with a Choctaw war whoop.
Perhaps it is only at this distance, now that the Cold War is over, that Bernstein’s detailed and objective overview of events in China can find a less partisan readership and that the important lessons about what happened at that time can be learned. Bernstein gives us a picture of the political situation in China in 1945 in all its complexity and nuance. He explores the charges made at the time (and subsequently) against the U.S. State Department diplomats in China, particularly the argument that they were Communist sympathizers and that they sought to undermine U.S. support for Chiang’s government. These were charges made chiefly of Roosevelt’s special envoy to China, Patrick J. Hurley when he resigned his post after failing to broker a successful agreement between Chiang and Mao about the political future of China. Bernstein argues that the diplomats in the American embassy were not disloyal, that in many ways their sense of how events were going to unfold in China was more accurate than that of their critics. He believes that they had a better understanding of the realities on the ground and were trying to be pragmatic. They knew of the systemic weakness of Koumintang power and of the popular and military strength of the Communists. But Bernstein shows as well that, while not Communists, many of these diplomats had a naïve view of how committed Mao was to democratic values, were mistaken about the fervor of his Communist ideology, and didn’t know the degree to which he was taking direction from Stalin. They preferred to view Mao as a peasant nationalist, one who was mostly interested in agrarian reforms.


George Marshall was one of the most distinguished
statesmen of his age, but even he could not broker
an armistice between Mao and Chiang that would
last for long. He had served as the Chief of Staff
of the United States Army during the war,
and Truman called him out of retirement to replace
Hurley in China. Marshall would serve as
Truman’s Secretary of State a few years later.
On the other hand, Bernstein argues convincingly that Hurley, and his successor, the redoubtable George Marshall, were trying to broker a reconciliation that was just not going to happen in China. These two felt an unwarranted confidence that they could work out political differences in a framework of horse-trading and compromise like Hurley and Marshall were used to in the American political system. But a democratic government, with power-sharing and a process of nonviolent succession, were not political traditions in China, and both Chiang and Mao viewed themselves as being involved in a winner-take-all fight to the death. They were both duplicitous, appearing to accede to the vision of government that the Americans had for China. They both played the Americans in an effort to buy time and obtain military supplies and strategic advantage for their impending showdown. Bernstein gives us incisive portraits of Chiang, Mao, Zhou Enlai, Patrick Hurley, George Marshall, and others.

Thomas Christensen, in his review of China 1945 in the New York Times Book Review, correctly points out that Bernstein’s subtitle--"Mao’s Revolution and America’s Fateful Choice"--suggests that there was some viable alternative choice to be made. But as Christensen notes, Bernstein has given us an analysis of the situation in China that shows that Truman’s options were “bad,” “worse,” and “terrible.” The Russians entered the war against Japan by occupying Manchuria. This was at America’s encouragement as part of the Allied effort to defeat Japan. But it also meant that Mao would have a protected base from which to launch his successful revolution under the Soviets' protective aegis. It effectively settled the issue of who in the end would win the civil war in China. The Americans requested Russian help because they thought that help would save American lives as well as provide a Chinese land base from which to launch the anticipated invasion of Japan. The same consideration, the cost in American lives that would be expended on behalf of Chiang if America participated in a Chinese Civil War, was the reason that the United States did not enter the conflict. There was not popular support from a war-weary America for yet another conflict. Among his choices, Christensen argues, “Truman wisely chose 'bad.' Not all global problems have American solutions, and often the best policy choice is to manage and minimize costs.” If this is a lesson hard for Americans to accept, it is also a tough course to take in our highly charged political waters, where it so often seems that those who make the hard choices receive more blame than those who so effortlessly made the wrong ones.

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