Monday 5 July 2021

The China Mission by Daniel Kurtz-Phelan - Chinese History at a Crossroads

The question of “Who Lost China to the Communists?” became a political flashpoint in American politics. It gave rise to the McCarthy Era and in some aspects, it still lingers in Western discourse to this day. How and why China descended into full-scale civil war is what The China Mission by Daniel Kurtz-Phelan sets out to answer.

Late in 1945, General George Marshall was tasked by President Harry Truman of negotiating peace talks between the Chinese Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Communists, under Mao Zedong. Marshall wouldn’t be the first to try. There had already been talks held in Chongqing, right after World War II, led by General Patrick Hurley. However, these broke down and sporadic fighting resumed between the two factions.

It should be noted that the Nationalists and the Communists had been fighting ever since 1927, although a brief truce brokered in late 1936 interrupted the bloodletting. An uneasy alliance was declared, but that too failed in 1941, and a three-way war between the Nationalists, the Communists, and the Japanese ensued until 1945.

On paper, Marshall was the right man for the job. His superior organizational skills had helped win World War II, and his temperament and foresight were more than suitable for a political situation so dicey. While Marshall wanted to enjoy retirement, he felt compelled to accept Truman’s request as a matter of duty. His wife, though, remained deeply bitter toward Truman for ruining their well-deserved golden years together.

Arriving in China, both sides seemed eager to engage in talks. China had been ravaged by eight years of war, and although the Chinese Nationalist Army was large in numbers, it, and the entire Nationalist government was stricken by corruption. What’s more, it had borne the brunt of fighting throughout World War II. Although the Communists would later claim the fruits of victory, their forces had seldom engaged the Japanese in large battles, instead building up their numbers and popularity among the countryside.

But at the dawn of 1946, the Communists were nervous about a full-scale civil war, thinking they’d lose. In a short amount of time, Marshall successfully negotiated a ceasefire and a potential coalition government, sharing power between Nationalists and Communists. At first, due to events like the 1944 Dixie Mission, Americans were unsure of the Chinese Communists. Were they real Communists like in Russia or merely agrarian reformers?

What’s more, the Chinese Communists agreed to disband their army and allow their soldiers to be integrated into the Nationalist Army. However, small details like what to exactly call this new army, since Chiang wanted his forces to have always been the legitimate representative military in China, caused these talks to break down.

But the Communists were not innocent either. Events in 1946 hardened their attitudes, particularly due to Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s changing beliefs. Initially dismissing the Chinese Communists as “margarine Communists” (due to ideological differences) growing tension in Europe led Stalin to encourage the Chinese Communists more. This is especially true in Manchuria, when Soviet troops pulled out, allowing Chinese Communist forces to move in right behind them. What’s more, the Red Army dismantled all heavy industry in Manchuria (built by the Japanese occupation) and shipped it back to the USSR, depriving the Nationalist government of a much-needed industrial base.

By June 1946, the talks were all but dead, and the Chinese Civil War began in earnest. But Marshall remained until January 1947, trying in vain to negotiate peace but realizing the writing was on the wall.

The China Mission covers the intrigue, backstabbing, and politics of George Marshall’s failed mission, which ultimately led to the loaded question – “Who lost China?”  As if China was ever ours to “lose.”