Marshall in China
China and Ourselves: Explorations and Revisions by a New Generation
Party Leadership and Revolutionary Power in China
Revolution and Chinese Foreign Policy: Peking’s Support for Wars of National Liberation
Our new approach to China (we still need one) must be made in the context of our non-victory in Vietnam, where the old assumptions of gunboat diplomacy have notably ceased to work. In order to accept our Vietnamese non-victory, we need perspective first on our gunboat tradition and then on Chairman Mao—What does he represent for the future?
From the Opium War of 1840 down through the Korean War of 1950. Western governments could assume that their superior firepower would be able to validate the just cause of Western civilization. The first achievement of gunboat diplomacy was to “open” East Asia by requiring the local rulers in China, Japan, Vietnam, and Korea to permit trade and contact with the modern international world. This was all accomplished in the nineteenth century by superior Western (or in the case of Korea, Japanese) firepower. This firepower was subsequently used to punish and deter regimes that broke the rules of modern international law, as at Peking in 1900, and particularly when they committed aggression.
This was the policy basis on which we successfully chastised Japan’s aggression in East Asia in the 1930s and ‘40s and North Korea’s aggression against South Korea in 1950, and our Kennedy and Johnson administrations resolutely set out to do the same in defense of the Saigon regime in the 1960s. But it has not worked out as we expected, and we have to rethink the American approach to East Asia. The force of our firepower has not been less than it was before. What happened?
The gunboat approach had three components: first, invincible ignorance. The conviction of righteousness, that the Western powers (or Japan) represented progress and modernity, was unalloyed by doubts caused by an appreciative knowledge of how the East Asian societies had met their own distinctive problems. Second, compliant local rulers to deal with. Members of the old East Asian ruling class usually found it expedient to keep the forms of power by giving the invader his special treaty privileges or even (in Vietnam) sovereignty over the land. Third, a passive peasantry. The common people, being still out of the political process, offered little resistance in the absence of ruling class leadership. These factors made feasible a short, sharp use of force to bring East Asia into international trade and contact so that they could gradually learn how to be like us. To this, in the nineteenth century, there was no visible alternative: we knew we had a lot to offer.
The efficacy of the gunboat approach was undone in two stages. In the first stage, the local rulers became nationalists motivated by genuine patriotism and backed up by like-minded supporters. A Chiang Kai-shek could be dealt with, but he proved to be basically uncompliant because he was patriotically determined to maintain his own power structure. As a matter of principle, he preferred to sink with it rather than introduce changes that would progressively remove him from the scene. A similar self-identification of the …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Stay-At-Homes November 19, 1970