Thursday, October 1, 2009

This Day in Diplomatic History (New “People’s Republic” Sparks “Who Lost China?” Debate)

October 1, 1949—The world’s most populous country joined an expanding roster of nations under Communist rule, giving a patina of legitimacy to a burgeoning totalitarian regime in the Far East while inaugurating a whole new rancorous chapter in the Cold War in America.

Today’s Wall Street Journal featured a front-page article by Ian Johnson and Sky Canaves on China’s “fast-changing political landscape” and how it has affected art. Though most of the nation’s cultural institutions remain under the thumb of the Marxist regime, the art scene has spawned independent, edgy work—perhaps, the authors suggest, because the nation’s rulers wanted to secure the 2008 Olympics so badly that they decided to permit much of the art that interested Westerners.

Mao Tse-Tung, creator of the People’s Republic of China that was proclaimed on this date in Beijing 60 years ago, would have scoffed. "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun," he was fond of saying.

The Journal article, I suppose, is evidence of how far the world has come. At the time of the proclamation of the “republic,” Western reaction fell into two camps.

The first, typified by journalist Edgar Snow, hailed the Chinese Communists as pure, sharing the struggles of the peasants they had now come to lead, after a drawn-out civil war with the hopelessly corrupt Chiang Kai-shek.
The second fell into hysterics, beginning a round of recriminations on “who lost China?” that would adversely affect American foreign policy for more than 20 years. This “China Lobby” consisted of major politicians and media moguls such as Henry Luce, who were connected to Christian missionaries in China and were deeply angry over what was about to befall them.

The loss of China to the Communists was felt so deeply in the U.S. for several reasons:

* Franklin D. Roosevelt had wanted a counterbalance to France and Great Britain among non-totalitarian powers that would not combine against American interests in the postwar period. He was already thinking that the alignment of colonial powers that existed before WWII would cease to exist afterward, and that it would be easier all around if these countries could be made to see the light of reason. China, therefore, was enlisted as an American ally. (It helped that, as the victim of Japanese aggression, it enjoyed great sympathy from the American public.) American military personnel closer to the situation realized that Chiang was a thorn in the American side. (One diplomat, Arthur Ringwalt, recalled in an oral history for the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library that General Joseph Stillwell called Chiang “The Peanut”—when, that is, he wasn’t calling him a “son of a bitch.”)

* Madame Chiang, Chiang Kai-shek’s wife (actually, his second—he divorced his first to marry the Wellesley grad), was a charming and strikingly attractive asset of her husband’s. The regime reaped a public-relations bonanza after her 1943 visit to the U.S.

* Communists had enjoyed virtually one unstoppable triumph after another in Europe. Losing one of the major countries in Europe expanded the influence of Marxism in an entirely new sphere.

During the war, State Department diplomats—the so-called “China Hands,” such as John Carter Vincent, John Stewart Service, John Patton Davies, and O. Edmund Clubb—had warned that Generalissimo Chiang was not using American aid to ward off the Japanese, as intended, but instead to bolster his own position against the Communists. Eventually, they came to feel overwhelmingly—and correctly, as it turned out—that Chiang was so corrupt and so weak that he had no chance against Mao Tse-tung.

After China fell, Republicans in Congress and the media, such as Luce, Robert Taft, Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy, used its loss to score points against the Truman administration. Though the “China Hands” were just being realistic about the dismal chances of success for Chiang, it was easy to paint them as starry-eyed.

Service, for instance, after visiting Mao at the latter’s headquarters in 1944, wrote: “'There is an absence of show and formality, both in speech and action. Relations of the officials and people toward us, and of the Chinese themselves, are open, direct and friendly. Mao Zedong and other leaders are universally spoken of with respect (amounting in the case of Mao to a kind of veneration).''

Such statements, taken out of context, opened these Foreign Service officials to accusations of Communist sympathies. All, however, were subsequently vindicated by Congressional investigations, though their careers were often sidetracked.

Ten years after the birth of Red China, Mao Tse-tung and Nikita Khrushchev quarreled, opening up a huge wedge among the major Communist powers. The “who lost China?” debate left American diplomats unable to exploit the opening, however, for fear of being thought soft on Communism.
It took Nixon—a man who, by virtue of his rise to power as a red-baiter, could not be tarred with this brush—to pry open the door, in the hope that the Chinese could a) influence North Vietnam to agree to better terms at the bargaining table, and b) scare the U.S.S.R. into agreeing to an arms-negotiation treaty (the SALT treaty).

The birth of Red China had far more harmful consequences, of course, for the people of China. No observer of Mao knew at this point that he was already proving one of the most ruthless leaders of the 20th century, eliminating all rivals in the Communist Party. Once in power, he was in a position to rival Hitler and Stalin among the great totalitarian killers of the 20th century. The number of his victims are believed to run anywhere from eight to 14 million.

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