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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 literate opinion was a slow-working but final determinant of the mandate to rule, and that the Kuomintang dictatorship under Chiang Kai-shek was a congeries of competing factions that had long since run out of revolutionary goals other than power.

Most American policy makers were preoccupied with the war effort against Japan and never got inside the Chinese realities; so they tried to use China, from outside, as a counter in international power politics. Since their anti-Japanism was soon succeeded in 1945 by anticommunism, they committed the US to support Chiang just when it was plain to Chinese literate opinion and the China hands that he would lose. This commitment in retrospect seems to have been unnecessary. It eased our way subsequently into two wars, one a stalemate and one a defeat. But of course, given our patriotic idealism and culture-bound insensitivity, if we had not fought in Korea and in Vietnam we would no doubt have fought somewhere else. Schaller calls our problem “arrogance and self-deceit.”

The US Crusade in China is important and perhaps definitive because it draws on a great multitude of government documents, some only recently opened to research, and on the personal records of some thirty-five key people, in addition to all that has been published. (The book is amazingly un-proofread.) Schaller sticks succinctly to the level of policy formation and ferrets out what was secretly thought and said. For someone like myself who lived through the period as a minor scholar-official and so knew many of the protagonists but few of their secrets, this work is an eye-opener. It shows a greater degree of American intervention in Chinese politics than was generally realized at the time. It also documents why the Chinese Communists in the end could only conclude that American imperialism was their enemy.

Mr. Schaller first notes how government aid to China got started. The American myths of a future China market and of a special relationship with China, derived partly from missionary proselytism for China missions in America, did not lead to our sending aid. Nationalist China’s nation-building efforts in the 1930s went largely unassisted. American aid began only in order to check Japan’s military expansion. It was not initiated by Hull’s State Department but by Morgenthau’s Treasury in the first commodity credit loan of late 1938, part of which was soon used illegally for arms purchased through a dummy corporation. But by November 1940 the Nationalist government had discovered how to get our help: Chungking would float rumors of imminent collapse while T.V. Soong in Washington played off Treasury, State, and the White House. Chiang Kai-shek meantime offered large postwar concessions in the hope of getting us committed to his support. His attempt to use one barbarian against another was just as inveterate as Western statesmen seeking security through an international balance of power.

However, China as a wartime ally was unlike Britain and the USSR, because its national struggle against Japan was superimposed on the continuing Kuomintang-Communist civil war. Americans were slow to recognize this. They at first deplored it, and tried to disregard it. The USSR had sent air force aid to the Nationalists at Chungking, not to the Communists at Yenan, but Chiang nevertheless began using the Soviet menace as a claim on the US. By October 1940 he was asking our aid against the Chinese Communists, who were more dangerous than Japan. “It is not the Japanese army which we fear, because our army is able to deal with it, but the defiant Communists,” he said. And so the $100 million American loan of late 1940 had the effect of helping the Nationalists against the Communists as well as against the Japanese.

Chou En-lai appealed to the American embassy to intervene and forestall the Nationalist attack on the New Fourth Army, but the embassy naturally refused to muscle into China’s domestic politics. Except for a small group of observers like the journalist from Missouri, Edgar Snow, and Major Evans Carlson of the US Marines, who had visited the Communist areas, the American officials in Chungking were basically as anticommunist as were the New Dealers in Washington. Their views were an inevitable expression of American cultural values. For a hundred years already, American missionaries and their home constituencies had figured in China as social reformers, not as political revolutionaries, and now that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had arisen to lead a social-political revolution, FDR’s America could not get in tune with it.

Since Lend Lease was to be coordinated in the White House, T.V. Soong at once asked Roosevelt to send out a personal envoy. FDR appointed one of his six administrative assistants, Lauchlin Currie, to coordinate Lend Lease for China and Currie visited Chungking in February-March 1941. Currie astutely perceived Chiang Kai-shek’s problem with the CCP and he met secretly at the British embassy with Chou En-lai, the CCP representative in China’s wartime capital, but left no record of it. To Roosevelt he stressed the KMT-CCP split and suggested a dual policy, that “Chiang should simultaneously be supported in power and encouraged to reform. America’s overall goal should be to encourage a political evolution which both prevented civil war and discouraged a Chinese Communist victory.” Schaller thus finds in early 1941, long before Pearl Harbor, the origin of the Rooseveltian program which wound up five years later in General Marshall’s unavailing postwar mediation.

One of Currie’s suggestions was to build up Chiang’s image in America. Another was to send advisers and technical experts to counter KMT bureaucratism and promote liberal reforms. “As the New Deal had attacked the bastions of the old economic order, Americans would train Chinese Keynesians to smash the legacy of rural poverty and political oppression…. Currie seemed completely unaware of the fundamental class and land struggle which underlay China’s crisis.” Soon we were building up Chiang’s Free China as a “bastion of democracy” while giving him half billion dollar loans with no safeguards to keep the money out of bureaucratic pockets. All this was justified as the cheapest way to keep China in the war against Japan. But Currie’s “quick fix became the permanent solution.” Wartime collaboration between New Deal Washington and Kuomintang Chungking soon created a number of new operating agencies that tied them together.

One of Schaller’s contributions is his account of how like-minded Americans and Chinese collaborated in wartime institution-building. T.V. Soong, for example, with a Chinese Christian family and a Harvard PhD, to some cognoscenti obviously represented the best of both worlds. He got erstwhile New Dealers like Thomas Corcoran to operate his procurement agency, China Defense Supplies, Inc. Soon the “Chinese penetration of the policymaking bureaucracy” in Washington roused both the Treasury and the Army in self-defense to build up their own missions in Chungking. Another creation was in the realm of clandestine warfare, the American Volunteer Group, an unofficial (hardly secret) air force set up under a retired army flier, Claire Chennault, in Burma. Washington’s plans for bombing Tokyo from China began in late 1940, a year before Pearl Harbor. By late September 1941 over one hundred US Army and Navy pilots had “resigned” their commissions and accepted recruitment for Burma. Unable to get bombers after Pearl Harbor, they became the Flying Tigers and then the 14th Air Force. The institution of a secret unofficial American air arm was continued into the cold war era through Civil Air Transport in China and the CIA’s Air America in Southeast Asia.

The US Navy’s jealousy of Army domination in the landlocked China theater produced Naval Group China, a secret conduit that supplied arms and training to Chiang’s secret police under his chief assassin, Tai Li. Commodore Milton Miles (whose dimples had led his Annapolis classmates to call him “Mary” after the stage star Mary Miles Minter) was a romantic enthusiast who became a sworn brother of Tai Li, whom he greatly admired as a true Asian nationalist. With Tai Li, Miles set up SACO, the Sino-American Cooperative Organization (pronounced of course SOKKO!), based on a formal agreement backed by the Navy’s Admiral King and so by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and signed by Roosevelt.

From September 1942 Miles also represented OSS in China until Donovan broke it off at the end of 1943. Miles got a special allocation of airborne naval tonnage over the Hump from India. He subscribed to Tai Li’s dictum that no Americans should join SACO who had been in China before, because their imperialist past would affront Chinese patriotic feelings. Thus both the use of the machine guns and the views of their distributors in China would depend on Tai Li’s policies. By Japan’s surrender Miles claimed SACO was involved with ten guerrilla training camps which had had 10,000 graduates, eight 1,000-man commando columns, 15,000 men in Tai Li’s Loyal Patriotic Army, some coastal pirates, and a police training school in Happy Valley outside Chungking. Since Tai Li’s operations had always been more anticommunist than anti-Japanese, SACO still figures quite aptly in the CCP demonology about American intervention pro-KMT. Superman Miles was sincerely counter-revolutionary and the US Navy backed him until fantasy finally supplanted his judgment and he had to be bundled home.

Schaller traces the long strategic and personal struggle between Chennault’s victory-by-airpower and Stilwell’s army training programs. The rivalry became ensnarled both in palace politics among T.V. Soong, Mme Chiang, and others in the generalissimo’s entourage and on a wider stage among KMT party and military factions. To get anything done the Americans found they had to seek Chinese political allies in Chungking as well as keep their patrons and cohorts lined up in Washington. Both caldrons bubbled with personalities, who produced reams of Aesopian talk and Alsopian jeremiads by all-wise fixers at both ends. By the time the journalists and the Dixie mission reached Yenan in 1944, CCP intrigue was only another layer in the stew.

Working through the evidence, Schaller concludes that Mao and Stalin were distinctly not in the same boat and the CCP remained open to relations with the United States as long and as flexibly as they possibly could. Roosevelt became disillusioned with Chiang but tried until his death to buy Soviet support for him by agreeing to concessions in Manchuria, hoping thus to pressure the CCP into a compromise with the KMT. The most sobering evidence is that when Ambassador Hurley in early 1945 came out 100 percent for Chiang, lining the United States up irrevocably on the losing side in the coming civil war, no one in Washington challenged this decision. Wedemeyer as theater commander intervened on the Nationalist side at the end of World War II, also with Washington’s approval. The many outsider Americans were unable to gauge China’s domestic revolution but were already inspired by cold war fears. They chose to use Nationalist China in a grand world strategy with which the Chinese people soon failed to agree. The few insider Americans, China hands who knew the domestic score, were powerless to check this blind drift toward disaster. Democratic Washington kept urging liberal reforms in China; they never materialized. Chinese liberals, who were our best friends and natural allies, were men without a country, or rather without an army.

The evident conclusion of Mr. Schaller’s slice of history is that with more objective intelligence, in both senses, we could have stayed out of the KMT-CCP struggle more fully than we did and we might even have remained more friends than enemies of the People’s Republic. But unfortunately Mr. Schaller has left Henry R. Luce, who had no secret papers, out of account, to say nothing of Miss Lottie Moon, who began women’s work in Shantung province, and the Southern Baptist Convention, which continues to rejoice in her memory. In other words, the same “arrogance and self-deceit” that Mr. Schaller sees warping our China policy in the 1940s had been active earlier. Uplift of the heathen had always been arrogant from a modern point of view, and self-deceit with Chinese help had always been possible for Americans connected with China.

Mr. Schaller notes that “in a haunting way, Vietnam became the macabre fulfilment of Joseph Stilwell’s cherished reform strategy…to create a pliable government and army…which would form the core of a bona fide nationalist regime…which would sweep back the tide of social revolution.”

Fair enough. In fact, excellent. But how come we avoided making our huge Vietnamese effort in China after 1945, instead of twenty years later when a fresh generation were leading us? Mr. Schaller’s careful research stops in 1945 (a job well done). It does not entitle him to lump 1945–1949 so simply with 1938–1945. If he will return to the archives for us, I bet he will find that George C. Marshall, John Carter Vincent, Dean Acheson, O. Edmund Clubb, John P. Davies, and many others then active succeeded by a remarkable rear-guard action in keeping us out of a much worse fate than we suffered in 1945–1949—namely, an active Vietnam-type attempt to change Chinese history which would certainly have changed our history too, and not for the better. Perhaps we can agree that this negative success—that we did not intervene on a large scale to turn back China’s social revolution in 1945–1949—contributed to the American sense of the “loss of China” which helped impel us into Vietnam later on.

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