Dangerous Acquaintances

The US Crusade in China, 1938-1945

by Michael Schaller
Columbia University Press, 364 pp., $14.95

The American-Chinese love/hate affair has oscillated over a wide arc, sometimes appearing to be a romance based on the usual parallel illusions, at other times a realistic marriage of convenience, and sometimes a case of mutual fright owing to misperception of each other’s menace. Two cultures that have as much sense of identity, whether spurious or not, as “America” and “China” are no doubt fated to run the gamut of feelings about each other. Even today, when the Teng-Carter deal has miraculously pulled normalization out of a hat by the inspired semi-tacit agreement that Taiwan can go along as an American-armed province of the People’s Republic, we still find mixed feelings among the American public concerned with China policy and we may confidently expect mixed feelings to surface in China about the new American connection. Since people without mixed feelings are the greatest menace to stability, this can be welcomed. But a common view of history is needed for the long haul ahead, and this will require approximate agreement on the facts of Sino-American relations in the past.

Michael Schaller’s The US Crusade in China, 1938–1945 is the most trenchant study yet available because it not only builds on the earlier works by Herbert Feis, Romanus and Sunderland, Tang Tsou, and others but pushes beyond them with new evidence recently secured, and states general conclusions that starkly simplify the picture. These conclusions, whether or not we consecrate them as “facts,” are likely to stand for some time in the American China literature and may even seem to have some verisimilitude in Peking.

At the same time Mr. Schaller’s study is a good example of the way history adjusts itself to view the past from the perspective of the present: throughout the period 1938–1945 the great American preoccupation was how to defeat Japan. The Chinese Communist-led revolution had not yet occurred. Mr. Schaller’s concern, however, is how the United States wound up on the wrong side of the Chinese revolution when it did occur. It is a bit like asking why firemen did not deliver the babies in a burning maternity hospital. The fire was put out, but in another sense so were the expectant mothers.

Primarily The US Crusade shows how American technological resources and anticommunist attitudes were used to support the Nationalist government from outside China while it was losing support of the people inside. Not only was New Deal liberalism unable to save Kuomintang reaction, many Americans were so responsive to newly found and reactionary Chinese friends that they accepted their values. Confronting the new Chinese Communist collectivism, some American individuals were for it and some against it but most of them, having never left home intellectually, had little idea of what they were dealing with. Only the China hands among the military and the foreign service and some journalists with imagination—all of them trained to try to report objectively—could see the broad internal picture: that China’s peasant masses though long-suffering were not endlessly inert, that…

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