There’s a longstanding myth among leftist Cold War revisionists that America missed a big chance in July 1944, when eight American diplomats, soldiers, and OSS agents — the “Dixie Mission” — landed in Yenan, China, to open talks with Mao Tse-tung about supplying his Communist guerrillas with arms and supplies for the fight against Japan, and found themselves welcomed with open arms.
For a brief shining moment — so goes the myth — the United States had an opportunity to forge an alliance with the future leader of the People’s Republic of China, and to shake off our misbegotten support for his rival, Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. Instead, Chiang’s pals in the so-called China Lobby foiled the outreach to Mao, whom they portrayed as an unabashed Red. Crestfallen and disappointed by our betrayal, Mao then jumped headlong into the Soviet Union’s camp instead, just in time for victory in the struggle for China in 1949.
So when Joe McCarthy and others later clamored to know “who lost China,” revisionists could answer back: You did. America’s penchant for anti-Communist paranoia had cost us a crucial future ally — a “mistake” we would repeat with Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh.
Now former Time Peking bureau chief Richard Bernstein takes apart the Dixie Mission myth, by moving the pivotal date up from July 1944 to September 1945, when the war against Japan ended. Far from driving Mao into the arms of Stalin, Bernstein demonstrates once and for all, our policy in China made virtually no difference in resolving the future dictator’s mind to take China down the road to Communism at the cost of some 50 million lives.
Bernstein reminds us that American wartime policy in the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater had always centered on supporting Sun Yat-sen’s Nationalist successor, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. But severe doubts about Chiang’s suitability as an ally had grown as the war went on. Time magazine was the sounding board of arch–China lobbyist Henry Luce; “by the beginning of 1945,” Bernstein writes, “Chiang’s reputation as China’s man of the hour, Time’s gallant knight on the white horse, became mixed with something close to its opposite, a reputation as a petty-minded, obstructionist, and deceitful dictator.” At one point, according to one eyewitness account, President Roosevelt and arch–Chiang critic and American CBI-theater commander “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell even raised the possibility of assassinating Chiang and installing someone more pliant, but also more competent, in his place.
In fact, as we now appreciate, both versions of Chiang, as hero and as heel, were incorrect, or at least incomplete. Chiang understood the advantage China’s vast size gave him in fighting the better-led and better-equipped Japanese and so was reluctant to commit his troops in head-on battles with the enemy, much to Stilwell’s frustration and fury. Chiang also deeply resented America’s desire to provide minimal material support in exchange for maximum U.S. leverage over his regime — a resentment future American allies such as Presidents Diem of South Vietnam and al-Maliki of Iraq would share.
So it was not surprising that the Army and the State Department, with the support of the CIA’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services, would eventually reach out to Chiang’s rival, Mao Tse-tung, and his embattled Communist guerrillas in the mountain fastness of Yenan.
As long as the war against Japan dragged on (a war that started for Americans with the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, but began for the Chinese in 1937), Mao and his aide Chou En-lai were content to make happy noises to the Dixie Mission about wanting American support, even at one point saying, “We would serve with all our hearts under an American general. . . . That is how we feel toward you.” All that warm, comradely feeling changed, however, when the war ended — and whatever hopes the original Dixie missionaries, including John Paton Davies and John Stewart Service, had of forging an alliance with Mao and his “agrarian reformers” (Service’s immortal phrase) faded quickly. As Bernstein tells the story, the next U.S. mission to Mao, in 1945, found a decidedly chilly reception, even as 1.2 million Russian soldiers were pouring into Manchuria. When U.S. official Patrick Hurley (whom Bernstein unfairly pillories as an incompetent oaf) arranged for post-war talks between Mao and Chiang on unifying China, Mao made a good face of going along. But back with his henchmen in Yenan, Mao made it clear that the agreement “was only on paper” and “not equivalent to reality.” He had already made up his mind to throw in his lot with Stalin and gamble on Soviet support for his taking sole control of China. Mao understood that power comes from the barrel of a gun, and in August 1945 that gun was a Russian Kalashnikov.
It took a long while for American policymakers, including General George Marshall, whom Truman sent to China in 1945 to continue the negotiations, to catch on. Marshall, for one, sincerely believed Mao and Chou’s lies that they wanted a peaceful end to the conflict with Chiang, when they in fact had just begun to destroy any alternative to a Communist-run China. In addition to his own native gullibility, Marshall also suffered from disastrous advice from the so-called China Hands, Foreign Service diplomats — including Service, Davies, and John Carter Vincent — who, for all their purported deep understanding of China and command of Chinese, never grasped the mortal threat Mao’s regime posed to the civilization they claimed to revere, as well as the influence of real Soviet spies in the U.S. government. (For example, the Treasury Department’s Harry Dexter White worked from within to undermine Chiang’s government and to promote Mao’s triumph, by devaluing the Nationalist Chinese currency.)
If the China Hands never understood Mao’s real position as Stalin’s agent, Bernstein, at least, does. And as for the revisionist myth about the United States’ opening to Mao, Bernstein flattens it in a single decisive paragraph:
The dominant force shaping China and China’s future relations was not the American choice; it was the nature and actions of the Soviet Union and of Mao . . . [and] the Soviet Union’s invasion of northeast provinces in August 1945. Once that occurred, there was no further chance that Mao and the Communists would settle for a political deal with the [Nationalist government], despite the concerted efforts of American mediators to bring that about. . . . It was not American support for Chiang that determined the future of the Sino-American relationship; it was Mao’s ideological closeness to Stalin and his need for Soviet help.
In that sense, Bernstein’s subtitle is misleading. There was no choice for the United States to make in China; it was Mao, Stalin’s loyal acolyte, who held all the cards. Mao’s tragedy — and China’s — was not that he lost the U.S. as a partner in 1945, but that he lost the USSR a decade later. It was, after all, with Russia’s help that he was able to seize power in the first place, and then drag China onto the world stage as a great power in the Korean War. But then he decided to break with his Soviet masters; he turned his back on their advisers as well as their model for economic-industrial development, which, however inefficient and outmoded, was at least grounded in reality. Instead came the Great Leap Forward, when, with the Soviets as well as the Americans out of the picture, Mao finally let his devils run free.
–– Mr. Herman is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the author, most recently, of The Cave and the Light: Plato versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization.