Source: Laura Lam
“If we do not learn from the mistakes of history, we are doomed to repeat them.”
George Santayana (1863-1952)
Fully understanding communism and its effects continues to be a major challenge. What most people don’t know, though, is that it was America that hastened the communist takeover in China.
For decades, Chiang Kai Shek and his nationalist army had fought relentlessly to suppress rebellions by Communist forces. He was successful enough to maintain a democratic government for 21 years. However, Chiang was betrayed both from within his party and by America, the free world’s last remaining superpower, which refused to support his fight against communism. This resulted from a fundamental inconsistency in American attitudes toward Chiang. America should study the past as Taiwan defends itself from being absorbed by Communist China.
Nationalism and Communism
In 1924, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) joined forces with the Kuomintang (KMT). However, because the CCP was using the alliance to spread communism, the KMT-CCP Alliance inevitably collapsed. Chiang Kai-shek then set out on the Northern Expedition in 1926 and succeeded in reunifying most of the country. Then, in 1928, he formed the Republic of China (ROC) in Nanjing.
Communist spies began to infiltrate the KMT national army. General Li Zongren, a former warlord, joined the KMT in 1923. He was secretly against Chiang. Having manipulated support from the US, Li was competing for national leadership against Chiang by ousting Chiang’s loyal commanders, replacing them with communists. Chiang successfully neutralized Li.
By 1927, China was embroiled in a Civil War. During the first decade, the fighting was between the KMT and the CCP. Mao’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the fighting arm of the CCP, was weak, losing one battle after another. In 1934, the PLA was defeated and lost 50,000 soldiers at battles in Jiangxi Province. To regroup, Mao led the remaining 86,000 soldiers on the Long March. Only 8,000 reached Xi’an, their new base. Still, that was enough to renew Mao’s fighting force.
The Xi’an crisis forced Chiang once again to join forces with the CCP
Meanwhile, as Jay Taylor’s The Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China (based on Chiang Kai-shek’s twelve-volume diary) reveals, Chiang was almost undone by his own generals and the CCP launching a plot against him in December 1936. He survived that plot but more was to come.
Chiang’s favorite commander, Chang Hsüeh-Liang (former warlord of Manchuria,) secretly sympathized with Mao and communism. Known as the “Young Marshal,” Chang worked with Zhou Enlai against Chiang. In 1937, after Japan invaded Manchuria, Young Marshal and other communist sympathizers tried to force Chiang to form a new alliance with Mao to help defeat the Japanese.
Chiang rejected the idea, telling Young Marshal, “If the KMT chooses to stop the civil war and fight against the Japanese, it would eventually lose leadership of the nation to the CCP.” That was prophetic.
When Chiang agreed to make a trip to Xi’an, Shaanxi province, where the PLA had its headquarters, to talk with Zhou about fighting the Japanese, Young Marshal sent Mao a message saying that he intended to “stage a coup d’état,” to which Mao replied, “A masterpiece!”
On December 9, 1936, when Chiang arrived in Xi’an, Young Marshal’s troops kidnapped him. While soldiers and citizens wept, powerful warlords supported Young Marshal
When news of the kidnapping reached Moscow, Stalin worried that this kidnapping could be disastrous for the Soviet Union. He ordered Mao to reach an agreement with Chiang because the KMT forces were necessary to help defeat the Japanese. Eventually, Zhou Enlai intervened.
Zhou promised that the PLA would fight against Japan under Chiang’s direction. In return, Chiang promised not to station troops in Mao’s territories and to provide support (cash and supplies) to all armies fighting the Japanese.
Although Chiang never signed the second KMT-CCP alliance, he honored his words, ended the civil war, and fought alongside Mao during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). However, once the Japanese surrendered, the two camps resumed their hostilities. The second phase of the Civil War (1945-1949) between the KMT and the CCP became a full-scale war. The KMT was, as Chiang feared, weakened, leaving it vulnerable both to fifth columnists and Truman’s unwillingness to support the Chinese nationalists.
Image: Chiang Kai-Shek inspects his troops. Public domain.
Betrayals from within
Unfortunately for Chiang, both during the war against Japan and after, many of those closest to him became communist sympathizers and even agents.
Chiang came to rely on Wu Shi, who became one of his Lieutenant-Generals. However, in 1944, when Wu suffered a crushing battle loss, possibly due to CCP agents blocking his communications with Chiang, Wu lost faith in the KMT and, after meeting Zhou, became a red agent, working from within against Chiang.
Lieutenant-General Guo Rugui, who was Chiang’s confidant for 22 years, was also a red agent. As Ministry of Defense’s Director of Operations, Guo provided strategic information about the KMT to the CCP.
Other red agents who rose to power during the ROC’s final years included Major-General Ge Peiqi, who was running the Northeast Security Command in 1942; Lieutenant-General Liu Fei, who was the Ministry of Defense’s Chief of Staff; and Lieutenant-General Zhang Kexia, who helped the PLA win the Yangtze River Crossing battle to capture Nanjing in April 1949.
Chiang was unaware that the people upon whom he relied were working against him.
America under Truman rejects the Chinese nationalist cause
Toward the end of 1948, Chiang wrote in his diary, “Reports of lost battles swirl in like falling snow.” Not only was he losing support within China, but he was also losing support from America, the world’s only remaining non-communist superpower. Thus, Chiang wrote that his wife, Meiling, was working very hard trying to obtain American help, but “getting nowhere.”
Truman was hostile to Chiang, putting his hopes in Li Zongren, who was a KMT military commander and, by 1947 acting President of the Republic of China. During a visit to America, Li met with Truman and denounced Chiang as a dictator and usurper. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone that Li was also a communist sympathizer.
Additionally, the Truman administration saw China with a distorted view through Edgar Snow and his global bestselling book, Red Star Over China. In it, Show claimed that communism sought to “awaken China’s millions to a belief in human rights…to fight for a life of justice, equality, freedom, and human dignity.” Moreover, following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the American people worried about another war and, as John Lennon would say, they wanted to “give peace a chance,” even if it meant abandoning China to communism.
So it was that, in September 1946, President Truman imposed an embargo on military supplies to the KMT, hoping to force Chiang to resign. The consequence of not receiving new military equipment from the U.S. was that the Kuomintang was defeated in September 1948. By December 1948, when Chiang still hadn’t resigned, Truman angrily wrote to him asking “When will you resign?”
Mao worried a great deal (a fear he expressed to Stalin) that, if Truman did force Chiang out, allowing Li Zongren to take charge of the KMT, the U.S. would lift the embargo. With generous U.S. aid, and possibly even warplanes and troops, the KMT might be able to retain a non-communist China south of the Yangtze.
However, while the CCP had been struggling since 1935 to survive in impoverished Xi’an, its fortunes changed after the war. Not only was Truman turning his back on the nationalists, but Russia also increased military supplies to the CCP. These enabled the CCP CCP to revive and expand dramatically, so much so that it ultimately seized full control of mainland China in 1949.
America under Truman had failed to appreciate Chiang’s struggle and commitment to a better world and didn’t understand the totalitarian reality that disfigures Marxist idealism. None saw the morally corrupt Chinese society, where betrayals of trust inside its army had become so common. Instead, with a media sympathetic to communism and a president who formed a personal relationship with Chiang’s internal enemy, America pulled its support when the KMT needed it most.