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1949: The Sino-American faultline

Book review of 'A Force So Swift: Mao, Truman and the Birth of Modern China, 1949'

Orville Schell 

Mao, Truman and the Birth of Modern China,  
379 pages; $28

Kevin Peraino’s absorbing book covers that tipping-point year, 1949, when Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party came to power and things not only changed radically within China, but also for After several decades of close ties to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, including a wartime alliance, the plunged first into cold war with and then hot war (in Korea), followed by several decades of almost complete diplomatic separation.

chronicles these epic changes through the eyes of a star-studded cast that includes President Harry Truman, the diplomat George Kennan, Representative Walter Judd, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, Zedong and Joseph Stalin, with the secretary of state, Dean Acheson — whose foppish handlebar moustache was described as “a triumph of policy planning” by the New York Times columnist James Reston — playing the dramatic lead. Instead of putting readers “present at the creation” of the postwar global architecture in Europe, Mr Peraino’s narrative puts them present at the genesis of that storm system of ambiguities and contradictions that came to grip Asia once defeated Chiang.

Despite growing pressure in to respond militarily, Acheson steadfastly refused. In Europe the Marshall Plan and NATO arrayed the resolutely against the Soviet Union and on the side of democracy. But in Asia, Acheson argued, “preponderant power has now clearly passed to the Communists.” He refused to heed the pleas of Walter Judd, a Republican congressman from Minnesota and a former missionary in Judd insisted that because “the great events of the next thousand years” would play out in Asia, the should stand up to just as it had stood up to Stalin in Europe. 

Acheson fancied himself a pragmatist who, like his director of policy planning, George Kennan, viewed Mao’s victory as the result of “tremendous, deep-flowing indigenous forces which are beyond our power to control.” Because of wanton corruption, Chiang’s “house appeared to be falling down,” leading Acheson to call for “strategic restraint,” and for building “a great crescent” of containment around so, as Senator Arthur Vandenberg put it, Washington could adopt “sort of a wait, look, see policy.”

But with falling under Communist rule, Acheson worried that Truman’s Wilsonian idealism might propel him toward a more activist opposition to the “false philosophy” of Communism. Indeed, even though Kennan proclaimed that the was “not yet really ready to lead the world to salvation,” China’s Marxist-Leninist, one-party system had values so antithetical to America’s that certain agencies in Washington had begun covert operations against anyway. The US soon found itself pursuing a hedging strategy that claimed neither to embrace nor to confront Chinese Communism, but nonetheless excited Mao’s paranoia. Moreover, Truman and Acheson were being goaded by the likes of Judd and the glamourous and well-connected Madame Chiang Kai-shek, who was then living in the United States, and who lobbied relentlessly to counter the notion that active American support for Chiang’s Nationalist cause was, in Truman’s disparaging words, like pouring “sand in a rat hole.”

The year opened many fault lines. One within America was between those who supported passive containment of Chinese Communism and those who sought active rollback. That division laid the foundation for the contradiction between engagers and confronters that still persists today. In fact, the last words of Mr Peraino’s book read like an epitaph: “In their way, the quarrels of endure.”

Even though almost seven decades have elapsed since 1949, the enduring gap between the two countries’ political systems and values continues to widen and incubate worrisome levels of suspicion. Without being able to interact with the openness and ease of their Nationalist forerunners, current Chinese officials charged with bridging the still wide East-West gap are deprived of an essential building block. What is more, the party now squeezes out as untrustworthy those Chinese whom it fears to have been overly influenced by the West, and even seeks to ostracise those foreign voices with which it disagrees. As a result, a whole set of muscles essential for any two societies to interact in a fulsome and healthy manner is going missing.

While the US and enjoy growing volumes of trade, investment and travel, an increasingly impermeable membrane is simultaneously now being interposed between decision makers that deprives the two countries of critical tools in being able to develop a more convergent future. Despite China’s remarkable economic “rejuvenation” and new wealth and power, there has been no commensurate restoration of that elusive quality possessed by Chiang’s Nationalist officials, and even his wife, that allowed them to be more comprehensively engaged with the outside world. 

Washington must once again decide, as Acheson asked in 1949, “what is possible, what is impossible, what are the consequences of some actions, what are the consequences of others?” The relationship, always a difficult one, once again begs reinvention. However, unlike the world of 1949, so dramatically described by Mr Peraino in his timely book, our current globalised world renders separation not even thinkable.

©2017 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Sun, October 08 2017. 22:41 IST