The American people have always believed that they have the ability to do extraordinary things. It is very probable that the American public, as a whole, truly believes in the phrase: “the difficult we can do tomorrow. The impossible may take a while.” Problems arise however when Americans come up against something that truly is impossible. When this happens, the American psyche must find some way to rationalize failure. Often, the way that they do that is to place their faith in a historical myth. By doing this they can obscure what really happened and continue to believe in their own exceptionalism.
One particular myth which has been around a relatively short time, but is fully ingrained into the United States public memory, concerns China. In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Kuomintang (KMT) or nationalist government, fled mainland China for the island of Formosa (Taiwan). After Chiang fled, the Chinese Communists (CCP), led by Mao Zedong, established the People’s Republic of China. The defeat of Chiang Kai-shek was a devastating blow to the United States, which had been an ally of the Nationalist government for many years. The KMT had used United States money and material during World War II to help expel the Japanese from China. While hoping to avoid civil war, the United States continued to help Chiang attempt to extend his rule throughout China once World War II had ended.
In 1945, Changs forces greatly outnumbered those of the CCP and victory seemed possible. When he was finally defeated four years later, Americans could not believe it. Over the next several years, a myth gradually formed in the United States to explain how China had been “lost.” Found in various forms, the myth basically states that the Republic of China, the United States friend and ally in World War II, did not simply fall to Communist aggression, it was pledged. The Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek was defeated by Mao Zedong communists because of the Soviet inspired, treasonous actions of officials in the State Department of the Truman administration.
On June 30, 1949 Mao Zedong, the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, issued a statement that the People’s Republic of China would distance itself from the imperialistic knighted states and “lean” to the side of the Soviet Union: “we are keenly aware that we must lean to one side in order to achieve and consolidate victory. To sit on the fence is to go nowhere. There is no third path. We oppose the Chiang Kai-shek reactionaries who leaned towards imperialism. Internationally, we belong to the anti-imperialist front headed by the Soviet Union. We can only seek true friendship from this front, not from the imperialist front.” By the time Chiang moved his government to Formosa in December of that same year, the Communist controlled China. United States saw this defeat not only as a victory for the Chinese Communists but also for the Soviet Union. According to the world Communist conspiracy theory, Communist revolutions were not the result of indigenous uprisings, but rather of a Soviet plot to dominate the world.
In August 1949, Secretary of State Dean Acheson issued the China White Paper. In this document, Acheson attempted to explain the reasons for the “fall” of China. It stated that: “When peace came the United States was confronted with three possible alternatives in China: (1) it could have pulled out lock, stock, and barrel: (2) it could have intervened militarily on a major scale to assist the Nationalist to destroy the Communists; (3) it could, while assisting the Nationalist to assert their authority over as much of China’s possible, endeavor to avoid civil war by working for a compromise between the two sides.” Acheson and then proceeded to explain why the Truman administration took the third course.
According to the White Paper, the United States could not have chosen the first course because it would’ve been an abandonment of its international responsibility. After World War II United States realized that he needed to take a more active role in global politics and this meant that it could not abandon China. If the United States could not pull out completely, neither could involve itself militarily on a large scale. At the end of World War II the United States had nearly 11 million men in uniform. A year later that figure was down to around 2 million men the American people were tired of war and make would not accept a large-scale intervention in China. This left only the third course of the United States to take. In the end, this choice would not be successful.
During World War II, both the Communists and the Nationalists fought against the Japanese in the side of the Allies. By the end of the war, the KMT control the majority of China, but the communist also controlled a large area, including most of Manchuria. In December 1945, President Truman sent General George C. Marshall to China to help avoid civil war and to form a coalition, non-Communist government. By January 1946 both sides had accepted a cease-fire. It would only last for months.
The cease-fire ultimately failed because neither side was willing to accept a coalition government; each side thought it could defeat the other. In 1945 and 1946 Chiang clearly thought he had the upper hand. First of all, he already control the majority of China and his army vastly outnumbered that of the CCP. Secondly, during the period between VJ day and his flight to for most, Chiang received over $3 billion in aid from the United States, and so supplying his army was not a problem. Because of all of this, and his belief that the United States would not and could not abandon him, Chiang was very confident in his ability to defeat the Communists. His confidence would not be enough to overcome his many weaknesses however.
Throughout World War II and on into the civil war the United States pressed Chiang to reform his government. Far from the democracy which many people idealized the KMT government ads, it was inefficient, corrupt, and often brutal. Chang’s government was filled with Christians and rich nobles who had very little in common with the ordinary, Buddhist Chinese. The high taxes and hyperinflation which wracked the country further alienated the Nationalist government from the people. Every time the United States pressed for reforms however, Chiang refused. He clung to believe that no matter how bad he was, his government was more acceptable to the Americans than malice. Because of this he did not believe the United States can afford to abandon him.
Even if the United States did not abandon him, hundreds of thousands of his troops, along with their weapons, did. Maus a dong and his “agrarian reformers” had the support of the common people. As victory followed victory, the size of the CCP army swelled with former Nationalist soldiers and American weapons. Those soldiers that did stay in the Nationalist army had low morale and would surrender at the first chance they got. By the end of 1949, Chiang’s Nationalist forces had been thoroughly routed, and Mao was issuing his “lean to one side” statement. Ultimately, the United States did what it could to keep the Nationalist government from falling in the Communists from rising to power. The Communist victory was not a result of the treasonous actions of any American however. The United States never had the power to keep China from falling and dust it would be impossible for someone to undermine a power that was not there.
If the United States never had the power to influence events in China, then where did the myth that it had “lost” China come from? As with many myths this one took a long time to develop, with its seeds been sown even before World War II. Throughout his reign, Chiang was characterized by Americans as a staunch advocate of democracy. He was a Christian, a symbol of the new, West leaning China, and characterized as a strong ally in the fight against fascism in Asia. In 1937 he and his wife were even named Time magazine’s man and wife of the year. When World War II broke out, the American press and embellished roles of votes view of the KMT fighting on the front lines for freedom and democracy. The press lauded Chinese resistance and touted chain as a fearless and indomitable leader. Throughout most of the war, Chiang’s ineptness and unwillingness to listen to American advice were downplayed.
After World War II was over, and American public turn back to domestic matters. When they did concern themselves with foreign affairs they were mostly concerned with Europe. One question about China, many Americans knew very little. In 1949, after three years of Chinese civil war, a Gallup poll stated that when asked whether United States had aided Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists sufficiently, 18% of the people who responded had no opinion. More amazingly, however, was the fact that 15% of the people who had responded had not even heard of the Civil War. Because so many people, almost one third of the nation, and very little or no idea about what happened during the Civil War, and many others were influenced by overly positive press accounts of Chiang during World War II, it is easy to see how the events of the 1950s with current rise to a myth about the “loss” of China.
On February 9, 1950 Senator Joseph McCarthy made a speech to the Women’s Republican Club of Wheeling, West Virginia. This speech would touch off an unfortunate era in American history known as McCarthyism, and provide a cornerstone to the myth that traders in Truman’s State Department had lost China for the United States. In his speech he stated that: “the reason we find ourselves in a position of impotency is not because our only powerful potential enemy has sent men to invade our shores, but rather because of the traitorous actions of those who have been treated so well by this nation. When Chiang Kai-shek was fighting our war, the State Department had in China a young man named John S. Service. His task, obviously, was not to work for the communist nation of China. Strangely, however, he sent official reports back to the State Department urging that we torpedo our ally Chiang Kai-shek in stating, in effect, that Communism was the best hope of China.” Later in his speech he went on to state more specifically how the State Department had become infiltrated with Communists: “in my opinion the State Department, which is one of the most important government departments, is thoroughly infested with Communists. I have in my hand 57 cases of individuals who would appear to be either card-carrying members or certainly loyal to the Communist Party, but who nevertheless are still helping to shape our foreign-policy.” While this speech by Senator McCarthy helped start the myth by getting it into the public arena, it was not until June of 1950, with the outbreak of the Korean War, but the myth really exploded.
On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea and started a war which eventually evolve both American and Chinese troops. Although the Korean War would eventually calm to a semi-successful conclusion, it was a tragedy for the United States. At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union had occupied Eastern Europe and it seemed to be threatening the last. Through the Marshall plan however, the United States has successfully kept Communists from gaining power in Turkey, Greece, and the rest of Western Europe. When China fell to communism in 1949, the battlefield shifted from Europe to Asia. The United States now had to stop communism from spreading further in Asia. The North Korean invasion of South Korea was a serious blow to United States’ policy of containment in Asia. It seemed as if the fall of China had opened the floodgates so that all of South East Asia would soon be under Communist domination. It was now time to reevaluate what happened in China. McCarthy and other Republicans would be quick to take advantage of this.
Although McCarthy would never find, for all of his witch hunting, a single Communists in the State Department, the conviction of Alger Hiss for perjury when a long way toward making his claims seem credible. In the eyes of Republicans and much of the public, the Truman administration, or any liberal during the Cold War, could do no right. If Truman tried to find a settlement with Communists abroad, conservatives would charge and he was giving in to communism. Even when he brought the United States into the Korean War, Republicans charge that he was not being tough enough.
These accusations continued into the 1952 presidential elections in which Dwight Eisenhower defeated Adlai Stevenson. Roosevelt’s new deal coalition had dominated politics since the 1930s and it had allowed the Democrats to win the last five presidential elections. The ideas embodied within the new deal were still very popular throughout the nation so the Republicans could not use the repealing of the new deal as an effective campaign issue. They needed to find a policy area in which Democrats appeared weak, and so the spread of communism in the fall of China became two of their most important issues. By accusing the Democrats of allowing Communists to infiltrate the government, the Republicans hope to overcome the attraction of Roosevelt’s domestic legacy and scare the American public into voting Republican. The Republican platform of 1952 accused the Truman administration of abandoning China to the Communists and Eisenhower stated that: “experts in treason have plundered us of secrets involving our highest diplomatic decisions, are atomic research. …A group like the Communist conspiracy cannot be allowed to claim civil liberties as its privileged sanctuary from which to carry on subversion of the government. The climate of our federal government must be one that Communists and their sympathizers would find… thoroughly hostile.” No matter what is said in the halls of Congress, or inactivation between partisans, and myth cannot take root and be believed by the public unless it is conveyed to them effectively. By analyzing articles and titles of articles in popular magazines of the time it is easy to see how this myth was conveyed to the people. While some articles did attempt to fight the myth, such as the article in the September 1, 1951 edition of the Saturday evening Post, “Let’s Not Confuse Naïve Diplomats With Enemy Spies,” many articles of the time contributed to it. On January 7, 1950, the Nation printed an article entitled “China: Blunder upon Blunder?” On May 20, 1951, Time magazine printed an article dealing with China entitled “Mistake of a Century,” ending July 1951 American Mercury magazine published “Book Reviewers Sell Out China.”
Well it seems that many magazines published articles on how the United States “lost” China to communism, the magazine which seem to do it most often and most consistently was U.S. News & World Report. Between 1951 in 1953 U.S. News & World Report published articles entitled, among others, “Communists in Government,” “China, Fall or Pushed,” and “But We Let the Barn Burn Down.” One of the most revealing titles of an article was printed on the cover of U.S. News & World Report on January 9, 1953, “I Was In A Communist Unit With Hiss: Revelations of a Liberal.” Because this title is so large on the cover comment is easy to see a person just glance you the title at a newsstand could help to further the myth,
The myth that Harry Truman “lost” China took a long time to fall into its final form, and it grew as a result of many different forces pushing it, but the question remains as to why exactly this particular myth was created. The surface answer to this question is that it resulted from partisan GOP attacks upon the Democrats. Democrats had controlled the White House for the last five presidential terms, and they had the popularity of the new deal on their side. Republicans needed something to attack the Democrats with only founded in foreign affairs and communism. But just because the GOP was able to successfully use these attacks to gain the presidency does not explain why this myth became ingrained in the American public memory. There was a deeper reason.
The deeper answer as to why this myth was created and sustained had to do with the American psyche. Since its inception United States is believed that it is unique in that it has a special purpose in the world. Americans have always assume that their values and institutions that are universal application. If the people the world could just throw off the oppressive yolks of their governments, they would all want to be just like Americans. When American missionaries went to China during the 19th century, they took these beliefs with them. While there these missionaries developed a myth of their own, that the United States the Chinese people enjoyed a sort of special relationship. Americans believed that it was their destiny to lead China towards modern liberal democracy, which in turn, the American people believed, earned them the undying gratitude of the Chinese people. Because the Chinese people would never willingly give themselves over to something so opposite to the American system is communism, the fall of China must have been a conspiracy.
Similarly the origins of that conspiracy go even further than the American belief in a special relationship between themselves and the Chinese people. When the United States came out of World War II he was the most powerful nation in the world had ever seen. Americans took this as a vindication of their belief that they were special. When China became a communist nation against the will of the United States, this damage to American ego. The United States could not have stopped the fall of China, and this meant to Americans that they were not all powerful.
However, if the American people to get themselves to believe that it was not the enemy without, and a fifth column within which had to feed them, and maybe everything would be all right. If the American people can convince themselves that traders in the State Department of the Truman administration had undermined the authority of the United States and it purposely worked against his foreign-policy aims to the loss of China would be understandable, although not excusable. The idea embodied in the myth is that the United States had lost China in an unfair fight that it never had a chance to win. If this were the case that America could still be all powerful and invincible.
Ultimately, the most telling factor that shows that this myth as a result of the American ego is the wording of the myth itself. The myth in its most basic form states that “we lost China.” The truth is that China was never the United States’ to lose. China was a sovereign nation that made its own decisions. It was just the ego of a nation that cause Americans to believe the China belong to them, and that the impossible would only take a little while longer.