'China 1945' asks: Did the US 'lose' China?

Former Time magazine correspondent Richard Bernstein argues that the US was not in a position to alter China's leftward swing after World War II.

China 1945: Mao's Revolution and America's Fateful Choice By Richard Bernstein Knopf Doubleday 464 pp.

Would a proposed meeting between Mao and President Franklin Roosevelt have altered US-China relations? Could the US have used its diplomatic and military powers to prevent China from adopting a Communist government?

After Mao Zedong came to power in 1949, US Foreign Service experts who had predicted that outcome were vilified, and a “Who lost China?” hysteria swept America.

In China 1945, his extensively researched book, Time magazine's former China correspondent Richard Bernstein looks into whether the US could have changed the course of history – perhaps even prevented the costly Korean and Vietnam wars – by making different decisions in the years leading up to the Communist victory.

Some of his findings about the limits of US influence in China are relevant to more recent American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bernstein studied Chinese history at Harvard University and, in 1980, was among the first American journalists allowed to live in the People’s Republic of China, reporting for Time Magazine. His first book on China was “From the Center of the Earth: The Search for the Truth About China.”

Mao’s victory came after years of civil war against Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government which, although weak and corrupt, was supported by the US. With the Cold War under way, the shock of having the world’s most populous nation turn Communist caused some in the US to look for scapegoats. American experts on China were accused of having undermined the US effort to keep the anti-Communist Chiang in power.

Bernstein explains that 1945, which saw the end of World War II, was a pivotal year in the final China outcome. During the war, Mao and Chiang created a shaky alliance against the Japanese. Meanwhile, the US went to great lengths to try to get those two Chinese leaders to reconcile, and prevent them from renewing their civil war after Japan was defeated. 

In 1945, Mao and the Communists were still outwardly cordial to the US. Also, Mao hid his ties to the Soviet Union and downplayed his Communist ideology, while saying his struggle for China was like Abraham Lincoln’s effort to free the slaves, Bernstein writes.

Also in 1945, Mao and Zhou Enlai even told Maj. Ray Cromley, an American military observer at Mao’s outpost in northwest China, that they would like to visit the White House to explain the China situation. The US Ambassador to China, Patrick J. Hurley, prevented that request from ever reaching Washington.

Whether a meeting between Mao and President Franklin Roosevelt could have altered U.S-China relations is one of the many “what if” questions analyzed in this book.

Hurley, known for bizarre behavior, was a strong supporter of Chiang and thought anyone who saw things differently was disloyal, Bernstein writes.

Perhaps as important as the actual fighting between Communist guerrillas and government troops was their public relations battle.

The Communists gave special access to Edgar Snow, an American journalist, who wrote “Red Star Over China,” a book that portrayed Mao and the Communists in a favorable light at a time when they were not yet well known. On the other side, Henry Luce, publisher of the influential Time magazine, spun his coverage in favor of Chiang’s Nationalist government.

Among the China experts, Chiang had a poor reputation. But Bernstein makes the case that at least some of that was undeserved. For example, the Nationalists were perceived as being unwilling to fight, but Chiang’s forces actually engaged the Japanese in battle more than the Communists did.     

When World War II ended, the US had thousands of military personnel in China. There were some policymakers who considered building up US forces in China, and having them help safeguard the Nationalist government.

But, as Bernstein notes, after Japan was defeated, the American public was in no mood for more fighting. Had the US taken an active role in the Chinese civil war, American troops might have ended up fighting the Chinese Communists or even Soviet troops, who occupied northeast China. The world situation and the power of Mao’s ideology are among the convincing reasons that Bernstein gives to discount the argument that a different American approach would have changed the outcome in China.

The Communists gained widespread support, including from many Chinese intellectuals who saw them as a welcome change from the Nationalists. But some of that support for Mao, Bernstein shows, was based on the false image that the Communists showed the world. Many Chinese and Americans seemed to have missed obvious signals that Mao had no intention of allowing civil liberties. The author cites extensive evidence as to how, once they came to power, the Communists proved more repressive than the regime they replaced.

Mike Revzin, a journalist who worked in China, helps Americans learn about China with his ChinaSeminars.com programs.

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