Review: China 1945: Mao's Revolution and America's Fateful Choice

China 1945: Mao's Revolution and America's Fateful ChoiceChina 1945: Mao’s Revolution and America’s Fateful Choice by Richard Bernstein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A scholarly look at the U.S. policies in China prior to the ultimate takeover by the Chinese Communist Party. The old political battle about “who lost China” brought much chaos and fear into U.S. policy making in the years after the success of Mao. Bernstein covers the foibles of U.S. policy in China, but does so without attempting to push forward a political agenda on the “Who lost China” question. He actually writes a book that manages to look at facts objectively, a rarity in today’s world of ideological polemics. This approach has Bernstein frankly pointing to the ridiculous policies brought by FDR Ambassador Patrick Hurley, who became known for arriving on a scene and emitting a loud Choctaw war whoop, including once when he arrived to meet Mao. Hurley can be considered to be the father of the position that “disloyal” State Department China hands caused Chiang Kai-shek to lose the Chinese civil war. Hurley being over his head, and his inherent limitations, are pointed out forcefully. But Bernstein does not give a free ride to those very same China hands, pointing out that while there may have been a bit more substance to their positions (vis a vis Hurley) ultimately they were, to a large degree, taken in by Mao. “In subsequent years, many of the China analysts admitted that the view they had of this matter during the war was tinged with more than a bit of wishful thinking. “I obviously underestimated the commitment of the Chinese Communist ruling party at that time to ideology and the dexterity with which Mao and company manipulated it,” Davies was to write. “As I see it now, in the clear light of hindsight,” David Barrett confessed in 1969, when Mao’s China was engulfed in the vast purge known as the Cultural Revolution, shouting venomous epithets at the United States, “the mistake I made in 1944 was in not considering the Chinese Communists as enemies of the United States.”
The complexity of decisions, with the U.S. looking first to defeat the Japanese and not at the postwar ramifications for China, are laid out in clear and understandable terms. Bernstein lays out what I consider to be larger truths that extend beyond U.S. policy making in China during this period. We will see some of the same mistakes in later years, in Indo-China and elsewhere.
“Drumright’s stance was typical of much policy thinking in the American government then and later. The power realities of a situation, even when understood, tended to be subordinated to what “ought to be done,” what should be done because of precedents, commitments, moral compulsions, sentiment, and that great catchall, “national security.” The factor of cost of a policy was thus often slighted.”
Yes he most certainly is very perceptive in that observation. Bernstein also gives us a fair and balanced view of Chiang Kai-shek, pointing to his personal weaknesses, but also correctly highlighting the systemic limitations that Chiang operated under. For Chiang had to make decisions that, in the longer term, doomed his ultimate chances of survival, but in the shorter term were unavoidable. Bernstein is hard-headed and realistic in his evaluation of Chairman Mao, always offering a glimpse at the alternatives available, but ultimately judging him to be both a hard core revolutionary and committed acolyte of Josef Stalin. He looks at the Yalta Agreement, and points out how Stalin used the U.S. desire to have him enter the war against Japan to secure Manchuria, and tilt the ultimate balance of forces in favor of Mao, and against Chiang.
A book that is worth a read for those folks looking for a factually based evaluation of U.S. policy that actually looks at both sides of an argument, a rarity in this day and age. Bernstein has done an outstanding job.

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