Following the dramatic collapse of the Afghan government, an incredibly immature democracy that the western world put so much effort to create and maintain over the past two decades, debates have been renewed on the old topic: how well are the Americans doing when it comes to spreading democracy into the undeveloped world, and should Americans keep doing so?
The answer is not complicated if we care to examine the little-known piece of history where the US wanted to help China build its democracy yet, at last, caused the establishment of communist China. It is “unknown,” because the history of China between 1945 and 1949 is heavily distorted in China and appears largely irrelevant in America. This piece of history shouldn’t be ignored, especially now as China is being viewed with hostility by more Americans than ever.
The Turmoil in China, Both Interior and Exterior
In the early 1930s, the Nationalist Party rose to power throughout China while the Communist Party remained as a growing regional militia. Civil war broke out in 1931 and lasted for six years until a successful coup that captured Nationalist Party president Chiang Kai-shek, where he was forced to halt the war and focus on the Japanese invasion. The war between China and Japan, while a largely forgotten front of WWII, was extremely bloody, and Chiang Kai-shek’s troops suffered huge losses. Mao’s army also fought the Japanese on a smaller scale, while actively expanding the Communists’ sphere of influence in Japanese occupation zones. After the defeat of the Japanese, Chiang and Mao’s armies were almost evenly matched.
At this point, keep in mind that Chiang had won wide international acclaim for fighting fascism. In 1943, Chiang sat with Roosevelt and Churchill during the Cairo Conference, and the first lady, Madame Chiang, became the second woman to ever give a speech in the US Congress in which she aimed to focus American attention on the Chinese front. Therefore, it makes sense that when the civil war continued in 1946, the US had every reason to keep its Asian ally from falling into communism, given that the western world began to view the Soviets and their ideology as the biggest threat in the post-WWII world.
Negotiation Attempts by George Marshall that Ruined China’s Future
Chiang and Mao escalated their competition on the previously occupied lands right after the Japanese left. The civil war carried on in 1946, even though the two sides had supposedly made a peace deal. Surprisingly, many Americans believed that the Chinese Communist Party was a better choice than Chiang’s regime. At this point, US President Harry Truman made an interesting move, ordering general George Marshall to make a peace deal between the two warring factions. George Marshall proposed a two-party system for China and the nationalization of the Chinese army. Frankly speaking, he did not make much progress at all. There was too much animosity between the two, and building democracy on top of it was impractical.
In the spring of 1946, Chiang’s party launched a major offensive in northeastern China, where most industrial supplies were located, and he seemed to be winning so far. Marshall wasn’t happy about it. He threatened Chiang with a military embargo so that Chiang was forced to order a temporary armistice on the edge of a strategic victory. The communists later saw this as a turning point in their struggle for power. Months later, Truman recalled Marshall and subsequently appointed him as the Secretary of State as an award to his service in China. By 1947, the Truman administration shifted its focus toward Greece and East Europe where the USSR directly and greatly expanded its power.
There was a reason why the US had shifted focus, aside from the impossibility of peace and the threat from the other side of the globe. The Chinese government was known for being corrupt, and inflation was terribly high. Marshall and his colleagues also criticized Chiang for being arrogant, not willing to make any compromises with Mao at all. But from Chiang Kai-shek’s perspective, the Truman administration had done absolutely nothing but make interventions that heavily disadvantaged the Chinese government against the communists.
From Mao’s perspective? It’s time to shine.
“The Loss of China”
Mao’s army over the years had been famous for their well-trained guerilla tactics. Now with more military supplies from the USSR in the north and their enemies being politically ignored by the US, the Communists started large-scale counterattacks nationwide, forcing the Nationalists into retreat. In 1948, the Truman administration was busy dealing with its reelection campaign and the Berlin Crisis. When he saw the situation in China, he decided to completely abandon Chiang’s regime. Chiang, in a desperate attempt, implemented a direct democracy so that millions of people were enabled to cast ballots (making China the most populous democratic country in the world), issued a new currency to counter this hyperinflation (which soon failed), and transferred all of the government’s remaining valuable assets to Taiwan.
Finally, with all the Nationalist troops driven out of mainland China, Mao Zedong announced the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, which was welcomed by the vast majority of poor farmers, workers, and progressive intellectuals. Nevertheless, millions of middle to upper-class citizens fled in a panic toward Taiwan and Hong Kong, fearing what this new regime would do to them.
President Truman was now facing heavy criticism from the Republicans, who blamed Truman for the “loss of China” and its countless international consequences, including the Korean War, as well as the escalation of the Cold War. They proved to be very much correct, even today.
The biggest consequence, though, is that the Chinese people endured three decades of suffering due to violent land reforms, political turmoils, persecution based on religion and class, and famine. In contrast, people under Chiang’s government in Taiwan enjoyed a society with much more freedom and prosperity.
Douglas MacArthur — Chiang’s Last Straw?
Defeated, Chiang Kai-shek dreamed of a victorious return to his beloved motherland up until his death. The victory of communism in China further encouraged communist leaders worldwide, notably Stalin and Kim Il-sung of North Korea. In 1950, Kim finally had the audacity to launch the Korean War, with the hope of uniting the whole peninsula under communism. And when Kim was pushed back by the UN forces and was on the verge of a complete collapse, Mao was able to send millions of troops into Korea as reinforcement, costing the Americans tens of thousands of casualties.
The US commander, Douglas MacArthur, had been following events in China closely. In contrast to Truman, who only wanted to pursue a “limited war,” MacArthur believed that the intervention of Chinese communists in Korea was largely due to this administration’s mistakes, and proposed launching an attack on China in cooperation with Chiang’s troops, which would also involve the use of nuclear weapons. Of course, this plan was outrageous, and MacArthur’s forces were pushed back to the south of the 38th Parallel by the Chinese troops. Truman replaced him as the commander shortly after.
As a result, not only did the people of China suffer brutally under communism, Kim’s kingdom also managed to survive to this very day as one of the least free countries around the globe.
“History Repeats Itself”
If you are a history nerd and follow current events closely, you might realize how similar the situations in South Vietnam and Afghanistan are to China. Well, you can argue that in that historical context, as a result of the “Loss of China”, McCarthyism gained its prominence in the US Congress and encouraged future presidents to implement more direct military interventions in other countries, preventing the scenario in China from repeating itself. But many of those interventions turned out to be disasters too, and many American politicians might not even realize the true reasons lying behind them.
Take Marshall’s China trip for example. I personally do not believe that the fall of China is due to the US not giving Chiang enough support. Rather, Truman should have never intervened. To think that you as an American are able to help form a coalition between two Chinese parties that had been fighting for years is quite naive. Without the intervention, the communists could have lost altogether.
For more recent cases, if the process of Vietnamization started ten years earlier, then the South Vietnamese could’ve done better through fighting independently, perhaps even adopting guerilla warfare against the north as well. Furthermore, the attempt to implement direct democracy in Afghanistan, an underdeveloped country with a very low literacy rate, is quite audacious too and is doomed to fail. If, as an alternative, the US had not been involved much in Afghan politics or pushed liberal propaganda there, then the Taliban might have been less hostile toward influences from the western world.
It is true that most corrupt governments with poor leadership are never going to succeed, especially when their maintenance is heavily dependent on foreign powers. Chiang’s case is slightly different from those two mentioned above because his government had been independently in power for decades, he had a good reputation, and his troops were quite experienced. I do believe that Chiang’s failure appeared to be more preventable, so let’s make a bold guess: how would the world look like now if China managed to achieve democracy in the 1950s?
So, history does indeed repeat itself. And, unfortunately, very few people seem to learn from it anyway.