Old Friends and New Enemies
You and I were long friends: you are now my enemy, and I am Yours, B. Franklin —1775
On August 8, 1945, when the Soviet Union formally entered the Pacific War, Russians joined Americans, Chinese Nationalists, and Chinese Communists as allies in the fight against Japan. All were ostensible friends against a common enemy. Yet just four years later almost to the day, the Truman administration released its famous China White Paper, characterizing the Nationalists as corrupt and unworthy of further U.S. military aid, the Soviet Union as an expansionist power subjugating China, and the Chinese Communists as contemptible agents of the Kremlin. Congressman Walter H. Judd, a leading Republican supporter of the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, lamented the change in attitude toward the Nationalists and Japan, the new pivot of American interests in Asia. In a bitter note to himself, Judd wrote: "How much better it was to be an enemy of the US, rather than a friend."
Indeed, World War II had profoundly changed international politics. The United States emerged from the war a triumphant superpower, virtually unscathed and economically invigorated. The vast empires of the British, French, and Dutch were passing into history as more and more of their subject states sought to become independent actors in world affairs. The Soviet Union, with its tremendous military and political might, loomed as America's only challenger for global hegemony.
Making new determinations of which countries were friends and which enemies was not always easy for policymakers in Washington in the late 1940's. Not only did the United States now have to look on the former axis powers—Germany, Italy, and Japan—as important friends, albeit in need of reform; it also had to deal with countries that refused to take sides in the new East-West confrontation and with regions in flux whose orientation was as yet unsettled. China in revolution fell into the last category.
The United States had once had great plans for China. During World War II President Franklin D. Roosevelt envisioned a united, stable, and friendly China as the anchor for American interests in the postwar Far East. Hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars went to support Chinese resistance against Japan, and Roosevelt promoted Chiang Kai-shek to the rank of world leader, entitled to join Stalin, Churchill, and him at the 1943 Cairo Conference as one of the "Big Four" to help determine Asia's peacetime future.
But as the end of the war approached, China's military, political, and economic weaknesses eroded hopes that it could play a major postwar role. Instead, China itself threatened to become a battleground for big power rivalries. In the hope of preventing that, Roosevelt consented to Stalin's proposal at the Yalta Conference in early 1945 to enter the war against Japan and conclude a treaty of friendship and alliance with Chiang Kai-shek's government in exchange for territorial concessions and privileges in Northeast Asia.
The Yalta agreements failed, however, to prevent the steady growth of Soviet-American suspicions, which mounted as the war drew to a close. After Harry Truman assumed the presidency on Roosevelt's death in April 1945, American officials became convinced that the Soviet Union's efforts to consolidate its influence in Eastern Europe presaged wider expansionist efforts, which would include Asia. The Yalta agreements also did little to resolve the contest for power within China between the ruling Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Soon after the surrender of Japan on August 14, 1945, the two parties resumed in earnest the intermittent civil war they had waged for almost twenty years.
This conflict created an immense quandary for the United States. What could it do to help its longtime friends, the Nationalists, stop the Communists? What kind of Communists were Mao Zedong and his comrades, and what kind of relationship did they have with Moscow? And what were the ramifications of the struggle in China for the global contest with the Soviet Union? By the start of 1946, the Cold War had begun in Asia, and the Truman administration was grappling for answers to these difficult questions.
On taking up his post as consul general in Shanghai, John Moors Cabot, of the venerable Boston family, promptly reported his early impressions of the Chinese Communists to his friend and superior in the State Department, W. Walton Butterworth, director of Far Eastern Affairs. They were not "coming with gilded halos and wings to save and modernize China," as some Americans naively believed, he wrote in February 1948; they were mouthing the same sort of promises he had heard at his previous post in Yugoslavia—promises they would inevitably ignore. "It seems to me probable," Cabot observed, "that if the Communists do succeed in winning all of China they will install in China a tyranny as subservient to Russia and a terror as brutal as Tito's."
Cabot could not know how ironic his words would sound in just a few months. On June 28, 1948, the Cominform, successor to the Communist International, announced the expulsion of socialist Yugoslavia from its ranks and charged its leader, Marshal Josip Tito, with "nationalist" deviations. The development stunned Washington, still convinced that Tito was one of Europe's most dedicated and loyal Stalinists, despite hints over the months of serious discord between Belgrade and Moscow. Convinced that Tito was irrevocably antagonistic, the United States had given him no comfort, let alone encouragement. Washington's attitude had been tough and unfriendly right up to the break with Moscow. When Cabot learned of the split, he confided in his diary that the news was "one of the most incredible and significant in many a day." "What comes next?" he asked himself. "Titoism" became synonymous with schism in the Communist world, and many in the West wondered if China's Communists would be next to break with the Kremlin.
The State Department immediately appreciated the implications of the Tito-Stalin rift. In the face of the intensifying Cold War, Washington had already adopted the Truman Doctrine, which pledged active support for anticommunist resistance in Europe, and the Marshall Plan, which bankrolled the reconstruction of capitalism on the continent. The United States also undertook the revitalization of Germany and Japan, prompted the formation of what became the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and assembled a growing nuclear arsenal. All these steps aimed to strengthen the Western home front and contain the perceived Soviet threat. But now, with the unexpected schism in the Communist world, the United States seemed to gain a weapon to erode the enemy camp from within: if one Communist state could break with Moscow, why not others? The veteran diplomat and strategist George Kennan, author of the policy of containment, suspected that Tito's defection was "as important for Communism as Martin Luther's proclamation for the Roman Catholic Church." Kennan relished the fragmentation of the Moscow-dominated international Communist movement.
Yet, American policymakers were not at all certain how to exploit, let alone duplicate, their windfall. Cautious accommodation and support of Tito, despite his commitment to the construction of socialism in Yugoslavia, might encourage further Eastern European estrangement from Moscow by demonstrating American tolerance for "national communism," a lesser evil, in the eyes of Washington policymakers, than Soviet hegemony. On the other hand, too obvious an American approach toward Yugoslavia might produce the opposite effect by seemingly validating Moscow's accusation that Tito was a stooge for the West and force Moscow to weld the Eastern bloc even more tightly to prevent further defections. Thus, the United States proceeded cautiously, delaying an offer of economic assistance to Belgrade until a year later in the fall of 1949.
Throughout the rapprochement, the United States insisted that Tito make the overtures. Kennan, who formulated the State Department's response to the events, counseled that the United States, while welcoming Tito's independent stance, should base its policy on Yugoslavia's actual behavior toward the West. Tito did not have to become anticommunist but he did have to "prove" himself a friend, if he wanted a positive response from the United States. The American handling of Tito set a critical precedent: American policymakers would invariably refer to this experience when they considered what to do with other potential defectors from the Soviet camp.
The impending victory of the Communists in China inevitably became linked with Tito's defiance of Stalin in the minds of many Americans. Just days after the Cominform announcement, Ambassador Walter Bedell Smith cabled the State Department from Moscow that the criticism of Tito had "extremely interesting implications for Chinese CP." Tito and Mao, it seemed to him, advocated similar heretical, "common front" approaches with "non-proletarian" elements. Though Smith did not think that Stalin would soon chastise Mao for his deviation, he urged Washington to seize the opportunity to shake the Chinese Communists' confidence in their Soviet ally. His counterpart in China, John Leighton Stuart, heartily agreed. Stuart, who knew the country well as a missionary and educator there for some fifty years, thought the United States ought to use the Cominform denunciation to promote divisions between pro- and anti-Stalinist Chinese Communists and foment suspicion of Moscow. According to John Melby, second secretary in the American embassy in Nanjing, the Yugoslavian developments "most assuredly" would help the United States in any attempt "to split the Stalinists off from other Communists" and create anxiety among the "Non-Communist left and liberal groups." It was simply "a heaven sent opportunity." From then on, American diplomatic personnel throughout China carefully monitored signs of Sino-Soviet friction or rifts among the Chinese Communists over the Party's relationship with Moscow.
Even though the Chinese had joined in denouncing Tito's deviation, the State Department was receptive to the idea that serious discord might develop between the CCP and Moscow. For one the history of the Chinese movement seemed to parallel that of Yugoslavian communism. Like Tito's party, the CCP was indigenous politically, organizationally, and ideologically, and determined to retain its autonomy from Moscow. Strong national sentiments had propelled both movements, and the Communist groups had gathered power through their own efforts. These features distinguished them from other ruling Communists in Eastern Europe, most of whom were installed by the Soviet Red Army.
Moreover, American curiosity about whether the CCP-Soviet relationship was manipulable was long-standing. Foreign service officers like John Paton Davies, John Emmerson, and John Service, who had made contact with the Chinese Communists in 1944 at their wartime capital in Yanan (Yenan), were aware of the rocky history of their relations with the Soviets. Although Comintern agents from Moscow had helped organize the CCP in 1921 and develop its early revolutionary strategy, the Kremlin had also meddled in its internal affairs. Moscow had been ambivalent about Mao's ascendancy into the Party's top position in the 1930's at the expense of Soviet-trained leaders. Davies and his colleagues found Mao and the other top leaders pragmatic and beyond Moscow's control. They even appeared interested in continuing amicable relations with the United States after the defeat of Japan. Atone point Davies dangled what he called the vision of "capitalist benefits" to interest the Party leaders in an American alternative to Moscow. His ploy was unsuccessful, and his superiors in Washington continued to favor the KMT after the defeat of Japan, despite ample evidence that Chiang Kai-shek's regime was unpopular and venal.
Following the war some leading American officials had argued that the CCP's independence from Moscow favored the Nationalists against the Communists. Major General Patrick J. Hurley, ambassador to China from 1944 to 1945 and an ardent supporter of Chiang's, concluded after talks with Stalin in 1945 that the Soviet leader disdained the Chinese Communists. "Margarine communists" is what he called them. Convinced that Mao and his comrades were not authentic Marxist-Leninists, Hurley helped popularize the notion that the Chinese Communists were simply democrats and "agrarian reformers." If the United States fully supported the Nationalists against them, Hurley argued, the CCP, lacking Moscow's backing, would have to come to terms with Chiang. Hurley helped produce a brief ceasefire in the civil war, but fighting resumed at the end of 1945. On his return to the United States, he charged that pro-Communist elements in the State Department had sabotaged his effort to save the Nationalist government. Nevertheless, he continued to insist that the Communists in China were on their own. On that point Truman agreed with Hurley.
The CCP-Soviet relationship had also occupied the attention of the former Chief of Staff and war hero George C. Marshall, sent to China by Truman in late 1945 after Hurley's failure to mediate between the warring sides. During his famous yearlong mission, Marshall, unlike Hurley, concluded that Mao and the other top CCP leaders were genuine Marxist-Leninists, not mere rebels. But like Hurley, Marshall found the Chinese Communists independent of the Soviets. There was "no concrete evidence," he reported, that they were being supported by "Communists from the outside." In fact one of the reasons Marshall sought an end to the civil war was to keep the CCP autonomous of the Kremlin. He feared that continued fighting would force the Communists to seek help from Moscow and make the country more vulnerable to Soviet penetration. But by January 1947 Marshall recognized the futility of his efforts to negotiate a coalition government and returned to Washington to become secretary of state. He left China accusing both the KMT and the CCP of intransigence and expressing pessimism about Chiang's ability to reverse the deteriorating situation. His sole consolation was his conviction that China would be a morass for whoever was on top.
The experience of Hurley, Marshall, and other American officials in China helped persuade Truman, whose anticommunism was ordinarily visceral and impatient, that the CCP might be a different sort of Communist Party. He talked about the "so-called Communists" of China and privately said he agreed with Stalin that the people of North China would "never be Communists." As with many other Americans at the time, Truman's attitude toward the Chinese was also condescending—he believed the Chinese people were simply uninterested in politics. This view in turn encouraged the belief that communism was an unnatural doctrine for the Chinese, one that was incompatible with their society and would eventually alienate them. Such assumptions underestimated the extent to which the CCP had come to represent powerful aspirations in China and sustained the hope that Chinese communism, at least in a pro-Soviet form, had a dubious future.
Finally, the prospect of Titoism in China intrigued many in Washington because it seemed to offer one last, desperate chance to salvage something from the looming debacle. By late 1948 the Communist armies were sweeping to victory over the KMT, even with its three billion dollars of U.S. military and economic aid since the end of the war. If the United States could not have a friendly China under the KMT, perhaps a communist China could be prevented from joining the Soviet camp. But while this prospect tantalized many who believed that the Nationalist cause was hopeless, it was not at all clear what, if anything, the United States could do to realize such an ambition. As it turned out, an Asian Yugoslavia was a chimera.
Late 1948 was a turning point in U.S. China policy. Chiang's armies suffered spectacular setbacks and were about to lose Manchuria and all of North China. The economy in KMT-held areas threatened to collapse momentarily. The Communists vilified America for its imperialistic support of the Nationalists and intervention in Chinese affairs. Faced with these depressing conditions, the Truman administration decided it had no choice but to cut its losses and begin distancing itself from the apparent loser in the civil war.